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Work Wise: Improving Job Performance and Proficiency

San José Public Library
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Innovation Summary

Work Wise is a vocational ESL and literacy program to improve the job performance and proficiency of low-skilled, employed workers. Through a combination of classroom instruction and individual tutoring tailored to the specific industry, participants made gains in their English language skills and improved their proficiency on their jobs.

Problem Statement

In San José, over 38% of the population (nearly 360,000 people) was born in another country and speaks a first language other than English. Additionally, based on the National Assessment of Adult Literacy findings, 16% of adults in Santa Clara County are at below basic literacy levels and 29% only have basic literacy skills. (San José represents over half of the population of Santa Clara County.) As English ability is directly linked to job performance and higher wages, this population has limited opportunities for securing employment and making employment advancements. The need for greater English proficiency is primary among low and unskilled workers in the city.


Partners in Reading, the Library's adult literacy program, developed and delivered Work Wise, a vocational English as a Second Language (ESL) and literacy program to improve the job performance and proficiency of low-skilled, currently employed workers in San José. The program focused on three vocations: janitors, preschool teaching assistants, and environmental service workers in health care. Participants engaged in job-related training classes for at least 24 weeks at their worksites that embedded reading, writing, ESL and computer skills into work tasks. The content was customized to reflect the needs of employers and the work of the employees participating in the project. To augment the classroom instruction, a corresponding training curriculum was developed and delivered to volunteer tutors who worked one-to-one with many of the participants. In addition to a variety of lesson plans around the various work topics, specialized resources directly related to vocational literacy and these workplaces were developed or secured for tutors to use. The combination of classes planned and delivered by knowledgeable instructors and individual instruction from trained volunteer tutors greatly benefitted the learners and accelerated their progress. Work Wise was made possible by grants from the U.S. Department of Labor, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and the California State Library.


Based on surveys and interviews, 100% of participants have indicated an increase in their ability to understand and speak English on the job and in their lives. Also, they all unanimously indicated that the training helped them with their jobs. Formal assessment tools show that 84% had a measurable increase in their ESL and literacy levels, and 97% showed improved competence in job tasks. Further, 100% of the employers identified improvements in the performance of their employees. Most employers described increased confidence in speaking English. One employer mentioned that since the program, “José is less shy and now interacts in conversation.” Employers also identified improved job skills. Sample comments included, “They understand the job tasks a lot better,” “They know more about computers now,” and “They are more motivated on the job.” The anecdotes from the program are just as telling as the statistics. Maria is a middle age woman who has been a custodian for ten years and although she has worked on her English for some time, she tests at the beginning level. When she began Work Wise she was shy and rarely spoke English. She continuously told the instructor, “I not smart,” and “I not learning anything.” To boost her confidence, the instructor pointed out her successes and encouraged her to participate. Maria responded and went from providing quiet one-word answers with her head down, to replying in full sentences, proudly expressing her opinion. In a recent unit on reading maps and giving directions, Maria explained to the class how to navigate around the workplace using a map. Her colleagues are now learning from her.