Letters for Life, Portugal

  • Date published:
    6 August 2018

Programme Key Information

Programme Title Letters for Life
Implementing Organization Coimbra Higher Education School of Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra, Coimbra Group of the Portuguese Association for Culture and Lifelong Learning.
Programme Partners the Coimbra Higher Education School; the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences of University of Coimbra; the Portuguese Association for Culture and Lifelong Learning; the Association Icreate of Poiares; the Condeixa Municipal Council; the Local Contract for Social Development in Condeixa; the Vila Nova de Poiares Municipal Council, Vila Nova de Poiares Local Districts: Arrifana; Lavegadas; Santo André; São Miguel; the Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Vila Nova de Poiares (nursing home, continuous care unit and day care unit); Spotheray; Association Sempre a Aprender (Always Learning); Legião da Boa Vontade (Legion of Good Will).
Language of Instruction Portuguese
Funding the Association Icreate; Vila Nova de Poiares Municipal Council and Local Districts: Arrifana, Lavegadas, Santo André, São Miguel.
Annual Programme Costs 6,468 € in 2017
Annual Programme Cost per Learner 108 € per Learner. For 2018, with the expansion of the project, around 680 € will be allocated for per learner.
Date of Inception 2015

Country context and background

Adult literacy and education in Portugal have a legal foundation in the Portuguese constitution which not only guarantees every citizen the right to education, equal opportunities for learning, also “permanent education and eliminating illiteracy” (Comparative Constitutions Project, 2005). The Portuguese government has a central department of the Ministry of Education, namely the Directorate General for Vocational Education and Training, which is responsible for carrying out integrated policies and training provisions on adult learning and lifelong learning education. Particularly, from 2005 to 2010, a national strategy, the New Opportunities Initiative, was launched by the government to increase levels of education and qualification of the Portuguese population especially youth and adults who have not completed basic and secondary education (National Qualifications Agency, 2008). With this government initiative, thousands of low-skilled and low-qualified youth and adults were able to increase both their educational level and professional skills. However, the adult learning and education in Portugal still needs improvement, especially compared with other member states of European Unions. For example, according to the 2016 Global Education Monitoring Report, among EU countries, Portugal has the highest rate of adults with less than lower secondary education, 39 percent of adults in 2013, and 60 percent of adults have less than upper secondary education (UNESCO, 2016).

The issue of providing all adults in Portugal with opportunities to engage in lifelong learning becomes more challenging, especially when marginalized groups of people such as immigrants and older citizens are put into consideration. By analyzing results from the 2009 national survey on the education training of adults, Fragoso (2012) included that older adults (above 65) are invisible in Portuguese adult education; besides, due to determining factors, such as age, educational background, income, social economic status and literacy and ICT skills, it is difficult for adults learners to participate in continuing and lifelong learning education. Thus, in a time where adult and lifelong learning education is primarily driven by an agenda of promoting employability, productivity and competitiveness of adult learners, it is extremely important to explore innovative approaches to provide equal learning opportunities to older adults in order to empower and integrate them to the mainstream society. Particularly, through enhancing their literacy, numeracy and digital skills of senior citizens, they could be able to engage in further learning, and keep up with the development of the society. The intervention into adult and lifelong learning education becomes more exigent with the estimation that by 2050 older citizens in Portugal will make up 32 percent of the total population, with an average aging index of 243 percent (Fragoso, 2012). Another group that should be included in the adult education is adult immigrants and ethnic minorities with little or no schooling, since research shows that less educated adult immigrants’ educational needs are persistently neglected in Portugal (Matias et al., 2016).

Therefore, regardless of the achievement made by the Portuguese government in providing adult education, there is still a high demand for continuous learning among low-literate and low-educate population. For these groups of adults, literacy and numeracy learning is not only a way to enhance their employability and competitiveness on the labor market, but also a step stone to advance individual integration into the society.

Programme overview

The Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra embraces in its mission the “the provision of services to the community, in view of the transfer of knowledge and reciprocal appreciation” (PIC Statutes). Contributing to this mission, the Coimbra Higher Education School (CHES) has been establishing partnerships with institutions from the community across the region of the country.

As part of the solid partnership with the Condeixa Municipal Council, in 2014 the CHES conducted a needs analysis study in Condeixa (located nearby Coimbra) in order to understand the socio-educational needs of the target communities. The result of the study shows there was a high demand for literacy and numeracy learning since a large number of adults including young adults in Condeixa lack of adequate literacy skills with a 6,6 percent illiteracy rate. The 2011 Census also indicated that a total 6,4 percent of illiteracy rate in the region, with 8,5 percent among women and 4 percent among the men. Hence, responding to the identified learning needs with a strong sense of providing service learning, teachers and students have decided to develope community projects based on participatory action research.

Against this backdrop, in 2015 starting from Condeixa, the Letters for Life (LFL) programme was initiated to provide literacy workshops and learning opportunities to vulnerable and marginalized groups of people in the Portuguese society. The main approach of the LFL is to build a community of learners through developing, organizing and delivering needs based workshops on literacy skills. Based on the positive evaluation of the first cycle, LFL continued its service to new groups of learners, entering its third cycle in 2017. Geographically, the LFL covered three locations of the region of Coimbra: Condeixa-a-Nova, Belide and Vila Nova de Poiares. In each project site, LFL worked closely with relevant different levels of local government partners who contributed to the programme in various ways. For instance, in Vila Nova de Poiares, the programme was implemented in a partnership with the Association Icreate, where the workshop sessions are developed , and the Poiares Municipal Council and local districts. In Poiares, the Municipal Council provided learners with free means of transportation. In Condeixa-a-Nova, the Municipal Council provides LFL with workshop venue and computers.

Aims and Objectives

Through its programme implementation, the LFL aims to achieve following objectives:

  • To improve literacy, numeracy and digital skills of adult learners
  • To create equal opportunities for learning
  • To build up confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy of adult learners
  • To strengthen social and family connection
  • To enhance civic engagement and promote social inclusion
  • To promote intergerational learning opportunities
  • To create a learning community
  • To foster reciprocity between higher education and community

Target Groups

The main target groups of this programme are adults with no formal schooling or school dropouts without basic education. The literacy competency level vary: some do not possess any literacy skills; some are able to read simple texts without any writing skills; and others read correctly but make many grammatical mistakes in writing. The programme gives special attention to people from socially and economically marginalized groups including immigrants, ethnic minorities, as well as the elderly residing at home or in nursing homes. The age of learners ranges from 20 to 90 years old though most current learners are aged above 65. Many of the learners have never received any kind of formal education, have low self-esteem and believe that education is not for them.

Enrolment of Learners

The programme is promoted at the local market, health service centres, schools and churches through distributing flyers, posters, and having direct communication with potential learners on these promotion sites. Information and news on the LFL is also published on local newspaper, social media and announced by the local radio. Through activities, people become aware of the LFL programme.

Any interested learners could register themselves to the LFL. Some potential learners, who are already beneficiaries of some social services, are approached by local partners (Municipal Councils, Local Districts, Institutions, Associations). These partners offer further help to interested learners in the actual enrolment. For example, schoolteachers encourage illiterate parents or grandparents of their school children to register to the LFL; an intervention team from the Municipal Council of Condeixa carry out home-visits to the potential learners and invite them to participate in the programme. Quite often, learners from previous programme cycle recommend the LFL to their friends, family members and acquaintances, because of their positive learning experiences and the learning gains they had throughout the programme.

Recruitment of Facilitators

Up to date, 20 facilitators have been involved in the programme. The educational and professional background of the facilitators ranges from experienced adult educators, trainees, Master’s and PhD students in different fields of social studies, and other volunteers with or without experiences and expertise in adult literacy. The CHES and their partner institutions recruit them. The facilitators are expected to have qualification in related areas such as Education, Adult Education, Psychology, Sociology, Social Gerontology and Social Service. All facilitators work on a voluntary unpaid basis. In the next programme phase, it is envisaged to pay at least two facilitators.

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

Training Workshop for Professionals and Volunteers

Once being recruited, all facilitators receive training in adult literacy teaching, conducted by the coordinators of the programme. The coordinators are professors from CHES, who are specialized in adult education and literacy.

By applying an active and participatory learning approach, the training exposes learners to both theoretical and practical knowledge on teaching adult. The main curriculum content of the training is based on the Paulo Freire’s literacy concept of reading the world (Freire, 1989, 2006, Freire & Macedo, 1987) and emancipatory literacy. It covers following topics: methods and andragogic practices in non-formal multicultural contexts; critical reflections on adult education models; learners’ competency development in planning, organizing, facilitating and evaluating adult learning processes, and diverse strategies and techniques of teaching. Based on specific needs and the context of a particular project cycle and project site, the curriculum will be slightly modified and contextualized.

This training is mandatory for all LFL facilitators. It is also open for other professionals and students who are interested in adult literacy and education. Since the inception of the LFL, 40 participants including 20 LFL facilitators have taken part in this training. This workshop brings learners and experts in adult literacy together, who work as a community of practitioners of adult literacy and education. As one learning outcome of the training workshop, all participants critically reflect on theories of adult education and further apply the newly acquired knowledge in practices especially in the non-formal learning context.

The duration of this training ranges from 8 hours to 40 hours, since prior to each workshop the workshop agenda, which was developed during the first project cycle, will be revised based on learning needs, knowledge level of the participants and evaluation from the previous training workshop. For example, as LFL plans to deliver literacy workshop for refugees in Portugal (starting in 2018), the facilitators’ training will be not only longer but also more contents will be added to the existing curriculum.

In addition to the pre-service training, the programme coordinators also provide continuous in-service training and support to facilitators. Coordinators conduct the literacy sessions with the facilitators and make critical observation and evaluation of the sessions, and provide practical advice on improving facilitators’ teaching skills.

Main Programme Activities

The programme divides learners of different literacy levels into various groups (around 10 learners per group). Each group attends one session per week. The sessions cover two main strands: adult literacy and digital literacy.

“Letters for Life” Workshop

As implied by the name, the focus of this workshop is adult literacy. Learners learn and enhance their reading and writing skills. The main learning approach is to expose learners to real life situations that require their reading and writing skills. During the sessions, learners read leaflets, all kinds of application forms and bills, and further practice how to pay the bills or filling in forms with correct information. To contextualize their learning, learners practice writing and reading their own and family members’ names as well as words relevant to their daily life. In addition, during creative writing sessions, facilitators instruct and support learners in writing their life histories, poetry, lyrics, newspaper texts, and personal letters (see right text box for an example of poem written by a LFL group).

Another aim of the workshop is the promotion of civic engagement. Learners are encouraged to critically read newspapers and make discussions on various topics such as health, culture, sexuality and gender equality. They also share their life experiences and stories about political development in Portuguese history, e, g. on the democratic revolution in 1975. Learners also engage in discussion on political issues such as freedom, democracy and the role of women in Portuguese society. As an example of learners’ civic engagement through this programme, learners have written to the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic to voice their concerns over the elderly community and call for support from political leaders.

To foster a love of reading and further their reading skills, during the workshop learners learn how to borrow books from the library established by the programme and public libraries so that they could make use of resources provided the libraries. As a way to enhance their learning through intergenerational learning, learners are encouraged to bring borrowed books at home, read, and discuss their readings with their offspring and grandchildren. Additionally, as part of workshop sessions, learners pay visits to public libraries, local newspaper and local higher school of education. Excursions to some places of interest (like a group trip to the beach) were also organized as many adult learners have never been to these places.

“Keys for Life” Workshop

The “Keys for Life” workshop aims to enhance learners’ ICT skills that are essential for their daily life. Digital skills covered by this workshop include the use of social media, gadgets, email communication, editing electronic texts and photographs and Internet search. Learners practice digital skills for different purposes ranging from the use of news portals to using online health services. To self-evaluate their achievements and express their thoughts on the programme, learners develop various activities: they write captions for photographs from their sessions; describe their experiences in written words; evaluate workshops and share their testimonies in a video. As part of this workshop, journalism students and journalists interview LFL learners for newspaper, radio and national TV. In this way, not only voices of adult learners, who are neglected by mainstream adult literacy and education interventions, are raised to the public, but also an advocacy purpose for literacy programme such as LFL that creates learning opportunity for marginalized citizens is achieved.

Along with practical activities, learners discuss security and ethical issues regarding the use of social media and the Internet. A closed Facebook group for the learners was created and throughout the “Keys for Life” workshop learners effectively interact and exchange their ideas with other learners.

Teaching Methodologies

The programme follows the adult learning theories including Pedagogy for Autonomy (Freire, 1996), Andragogy (Knowles, 1970, 1973, 1980) and Self-directed Learning (Knowles, 1975). The planning is flexible and specific for each group of learners. By applying a participatory approach, learners and facilitators work together on planning and evaluation. Curriculum design starts with learners defining their learning outcomes and goals according to the diagnostic evaluation. They also contribute to define the learning strategies and themes for the sessions. The learning activities are aimed at not only meeting learning goals and needs of individual learners, but also promoting learning within group members of different literacy competency. With a horizontal communication, errors are considered as a learning opportunity and feedback is always constructive. The interaction among learners is based on peer-to-peer scaffolding that follows Vygotsky’s theory of Zone of Proximal Development (1978). Based on Freire’s Method (1967), the session contents embrace reading and writing activities. Apart from literacy skills, they simultaneous develop social skills, for instance, respect for each other, ICT skills, critical reflection, and other skills necessary for personal, social and professional development.

The use of computers serves an effective tool to raise learners’ interest in learning. Especially, adult learners with dementia or other cognitive limitations turned out to be more motivated in learning by using digital learning tools. Moreover, to make the learning more enjoyable and less stressed, music is used as a way to learn new words and strengthen learners’ memory of these words.

The learning takes place in a peaceful and friendly atmosphere, where the learners are welcomed, feel valued and loved by the team and peer learners. The learning space is enriched with books, newspapers, dictionaries and other auxiliary materials, and flowers on the table. Facilitators value the experience, cultural background, knowledge, needs, interests and life stories of each learner. This positive learning environment make a literacy programme with the heart.

Teaching and learning materials

There are no standardized manuals or materials that are used for the training workshops. Rather, the materials are tailored to individual learners’ needs, interests and their proficiency level of literacy. Thus, materials differ from one group of learners to another. Generally, this programme makes use of existing materials such as books, dictionaries, local newspapers, music and other arts. Some materials are learner-generated: learners develop their own materials at home via writing stories, often with support from their families and friends, and then they bring their materials to workshop sessions and present them to the whole group for review and comments.

Monitoring and Evaluation

By employing Fetterman’s Empowerment Evaluation principles (Fetterman 2005), the evaluation engage all stakeholders especially learners and facilitators to monitor and evaluate their own performance. The programme team that includes the coordinators, the facilitators and learners conduct a qualitative evaluation at the end of each session and before the completion of each project cycle. For instance, every session concludes with a group discussion where learners share their ideas and provide feedback to the session. After each session, the programme team discusses and develops a critical report and works on the planning for the next session. The critical report critically describes the learning and teaching process: identifies learning progress made individually or as a group; analyses difficulties faced by learners; evaluates facilitators’ performance; and offers suggestions for further improvement.

As a formative evaluation, the programme team conducts a qualitative analysis of each learner in terms of learning outcomes and their engagement in learning. Written texts produced by learners and findings from observations carried out by facilitators are used as source materials for the analysis purpose. At the end of the programme, each learner receives a qualitative certificate, which recognizes their literacy competency and efforts made by them in learning. The certificate is officially recognized, but it does not speak to a formal school qualification.

Moreover, an action research study (conducted by two Master students) is currently undergoing to examine the impact of this programme on learners and their communities. The study will be based on focus interviews of learners and a content analysis of materials produced by learners.

Impact and achievements

Up to date, in total 60 adult learners have been enrolled to the LFL (50 women and 10 men), and all learners have completed all sessions successfully. Only for a few number of sessions, some learners were absent due to health reasons. Many learners have showed their willingness and enthusiasm to participate in the next cycle of the programme and requested for more sessions and field trips.

Families’ members and relatives of the learners and facilitators have given their positive feedback and shown their support to the LFL. On the programme Facebook page, many of them shared their messages of gratitude and encouragement. Many family members attended the final ceremony of certificate attribution and the celebration party to witness and celebrate the significant moment of learners.

More importantly, evidences show that even learners with cognitive problems improved their literacy skills. As a case in point, from the beginning of the programme, many learners refused to engage in conversation and they were unable to recognize any character even to write their own names. However, at the end of the literacy sessions, they were able to write letters or emails to their family member and write their thoughts on the programme. By sharing their life stories, most learners produced original written texts of different genres.

Moreover, their improved literacy skills tend to bring other positive changes in their life. Learners expressed that they have gained more confidence in dealing with daily problems that require reading and writing skills. Throughout the programme, some of the younger learners, who are unemployed, were motivated to pursue professional trainings. Positive behaviour changes were also observed among learners especially the elderly learners who had very low self-esteem and who were previously isolated in the society. With a strong sense of community that was created through this programme, learners have found themselves be embraced into a learning and socializing community. Now that they are able to communicate via hand-written letters and social Media, they have found a new way to be closely connected to their family members especially those that live far away.

The programme was presented in several academic contexts and conferences, and was broadcasted on a national public TV, Radio channel, and covered by several local newspapers. For its outstanding contribution to adult education and community development, the European Association for the Education of Adults awarded the LFL the Grundtvig 2017 Award for Excellence in Adult Education. It also received a honourable mention during the 3th National Meeting of Education and Training of Adults organized by the Right For Learning Association (Associação Direito de Aprender). Furthermore, on December 7th 2017, LFL organized the first meeting of Adult Education for Life as a celebration of the European Year of Adult Education. By bringing together the Letters for Life communities, this meeting contributed to the promotion of adult education for all and dissemination of good practices in adult education in Portugal. As a result, LFL has gained prominent attention from other potential partners who are interested in developing the programme in their contexts. In 2018, LFL will expand its programme in Bahia, Brazil by collaborating with a new partner from Brazil.

Testimonies of learners

The impact of the LFL are well illustrated by the following testimonies from learners.

"I only knew how to write my name and then, with the death of my husband, I forgot it and wanted to sign and I was not able to. Now I sign again. I’m thankful to my daughter, because she was the one who insisted for me to come, to learn and to socialize." (Mrs. Carmo)

"I loved the experience, the conviviality, the learning, I am very grateful to have given me this opportunity." (Mrs. Amália)

"We are a family!" (Mrs. Mariana)

“I learned things that at this age I never thought to learn. I learned to use the computer with help.” (Mrs. Rita)

"Letters for Life is very good. I have been emigrated for many years, I was not updated with what was happening here and Letters for Life has helped me a lot”. (Mr. Artur)

"I would love to continue! If my health and the sheep allow me, I will come back! "(Mr. Vicente)

"I already know more than I knew, I will learn until I die and will I die without knowing everything!" (Mrs. Linda).


It is quite a challenging to work with elderly learners especially those institutionalized due to their health issues like dementia. However, it is envisaged to overcome this challenge with an integrated and multidisciplinary intervention. In the near future, it is planned to provide literacy programme inside nursing homes (for those who cannot get out of the home) and engage other institutionalized elderly in literacy activities outside the nursing homes. In doing so, it is possible to promote inclusion of older adults in the communities.

Reaching men is another challenge of the programme. Although generally speaking men do have higher literacy competency than women in Portugal, they feel reluctant to admit the need for literacy courses. This is shown by the fact that upon registration to the programme male learners tend to request anonymity, avoid being photographed or filmed, since they do not want to be labelled as illiterate in their community. However, once they are enrolled to the LFL, they acknowledge the value of literacy and transform their negative view into a motivation for learning. Currently, the majority of LFL learners are women who are historically excluded from formal educational opportunities in Portugal.

The wider socio-political context of Portugal creates a difficulty in getting support for programme with LFL nature. Adult education policies in Portugal focus almost exclusively on employability and productivity, and overlook the social value of education for all, especially including the elderly.


Since its inception, this programme has received enormous support from various partners and volunteers. In 2018 LFL will launch its fourth cycle in Condeixa along with the third cycle in Vila Nova de Poiares. With increasing number of partners, the project is expected to reach other rural and urban locations. In addition, based on increasing demands from learners, the sessions will be increased from one to two per week. To meet the learning needs of the elderly who are incapable of participating outside their residence, LFL will implement its programme in one or more groups in nursing homes and day care units for the next programme cycle. To ensure the programme sustainability and quality adult education, LFL has been seeking for financial support (including materials, computers and other facilities) from various partners. The international and national recognitions received by the LFL makes more financial support and partners possible. To this end, the LFL expects to grow with a larger team and budget.

LFL has created a community of practitioners (of adult literacy and learning) including experts, professionals, trainees, PhD and Master students with different specializations in Adult Literacy, Adult Education, Psychology, Social Gerontology and Geriatric Psychiatry. This community will share experiences and improve practices; it will also contribute and enrich the critical debate on adult literacy and adult education in Portugal. For example, starting from 2018, with partners including a clinical team, LFL will conduct a study on the impact of literacy learning on learners’ health condition. In the long run, as one of the key participants of the adult education debate which was initiated by the Portuguese Association for Culture and Lifelong Learning , the LFL will take an active role in promoting adult literacy on the political agenda.


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Contact details

Dina Isabel Mendes Soeiro
Sílvia Maria Rodrigues da Cruz Parreiral
Project Coordinators
Coimbra Higher Education School of Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra


For citation please use

Last update: 8 June 2018. Letters for Life, Portugal. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 26 September 2018, 06:36 CEST)

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