Letters for Life, Portugal

  • Date published:
    6 August 2018
©Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra

Programme Key Information

Programme Title Letters for Life (Letras Prá Vida)
Implementing Organization Coimbra Higher Education School of Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra, Coimbra Group of the Portuguese Association for Culture and Lifelong Learning.
Programme Partners Coimbra Higher Education School; Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences of University of Coimbra; Portuguese Association for Culture and Lifelong Learning; Association Icreate of Poiares; Condeixa Municipal Council; Local Contract for Social Development in Condeixa; 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 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 (following the expansion of the project in 2018, around €680 is to be allocated per learner)
Date of Inception 2015

Country context and background

One of the primary aims of adult education and literacy initiatives in Portugal is to ‘eliminate illiteracy and guarantee … every citizen the right to permanent education and equal opportunities for learning’ (Comparative Constitutions Project, 2005). The Portuguese constitution provides a legal foundation for this aim; it falls under the remit of the Directorate General for Vocational Education and Training – the central department of the Ministry of Education of the Portuguese government – which is responsible for carrying out integrated policies and training provisions for adult learning and lifelong learning education.

Between 2005 and 2010, the Portuguese government launched the New Opportunities initiative, a national strategy that aims to increase the education and qualification levels of the Portuguese population, especially for youth and adults who have completed basic and secondary education. The initiative has been associated with the increase in the education level and professional skills of thousands of low-skilled and low-qualified youth and adults.

Despite this success, adult learning and education in Portugal still requires a special attention, as compared with other member states of the European Union (EU), Portugal has the highest proportion of adults with less than lower secondary education (39 per cent) and less than upper secondary education (60 per cent) in the EU (UNESCO, 2016). Furthermore, adult education policies in Portugal focus almost exclusively on the employability and productivity of learners, and overlook the social value of education for all.

The goal of providing all adults in Portugal with opportunities to engage in lifelong learning becomes even more challenging when marginalized groups of people such as older citizens and immigrants are taken into consideration. On analysis of the 2009 national survey on the education and training of adults, Fragoso (2012) concluded that older adults aged over 65 years are essentially invisible or neglected in Portuguese adult education policies and programmes. Fragoso also found that, apart from those younger people with relatively high levels of educational background, income, social economic status, and literacy and ICT skills, it is generally difficult for adult learners to participate in continued lifelong learning education. These findings suggest that, despite the Portuguese government’s previous achievements in providing adult education, a high demand for continuous learning among low literate and low-educated portions of the population (10.32 million in 2016) still exists. The need for intervention in adult and lifelong learning education is yet more pressing when one considers estimates that older citizens in Portugal will make up 32 per cent of the total population by 2050, with an average ageing index of 243 per cent (Fragoso, 2012).

For marginalized groups of adult learners, improving literacy and numeracy skills is not only a way to enhance their employability and competitiveness in the labour market, but also a stepping stone to advancing their individual integration into mainstream Portuguese society. Therefore, at a time when adult and lifelong learning education is primarily driven by an agenda of promoting the employability, productivity and competitiveness of adult learners, it is important to explore innovative approaches to providing equal learning opportunities for older adults, in order to empower and integrate them into mainstream society. Such innovative approaches include enhancing the literacy, numeracy and digital skills of senior citizens so that they can engage in further learning and keep up with the developments of society.

Programme overview

The Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra places great importance on delivering community service and transferring knowledge to local communities in need. Its mission is to ‘[provide] services to the community, in view of the transfer of knowledge and reciprocal appreciation’. Contributing to this mission, the Coimbra Higher Education School (CHES) has established partnerships with community institutions across all regions of the country.

In partnership with the Condeixa Municipal Council, the CHES conducted a needs analysis study in Condeixa (a town situated close to Coimbra) in 2014. The purpose of this needs analysis was to understand the socio-educational needs of its target communities. The findings of the study revealed that there was a high demand for literacy and numeracy learning due to a large number of adults, including young adults lacking adequate literacy skills. The 2011 census also revealed an illiteracy rate of 6.4 per cent in the region. Hence, in response to the identified learning needs in the context of providing service learning, instructors and their students decided to develop community projects based on participatory action research.

Against this backdrop, the Letters for Life (LFL) programme was established in 2015 in Condeixa with the mandate of providing literacy workshops and learning opportunities for vulnerable and marginalized groups of people in Portuguese society. The main approach of LFL is to build a community of learners through developing, organizing and delivering needs-based workshops in literacy skills. Following the positive evaluation of the first cycle, LFL has continued to provide its service to new groups of learners, and began its fourth cycle in 2018. Geographically, LFL covers four locations of the region of Coimbra: Coimbra, Condeixa-a-Nova, Belide and Vila Nova de Poiares. At each project site, LFL works closely with various levels of local government, who contribute to the programme in different ways. For instance, in Vila Nova de Poiares, the programme was implemented in partnership with the Association Icreate, which provided LFL with facilitators and actively participated in developing training sessions, while in Poiares the municipal council provided learners with free transportation. In Condeixa-a-Nova, the municipal council provided LFL with a 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 and school dropouts without a basic education. The literacy proficiency levels of learners vary. Some learners do not possess any literacy skills; some are able to read simple texts but do not have writing skills; others read correctly but make many grammatical mistakes in writing. The programme is particularly focused on people from socially and economically marginalized groups, including immigrants and ethnic minorities as well as the elderly, whether living in their own homes or in nursing homes. The age of learners ranges from 20 to 90 years old although most current learners are older than 65. Most of the learners have never received any formal education and lack confidence in their ability to learn; they also believe that education is not for them.

Enrolment of Learners

The programme is promoted at local markets, health service centres, schools and churches through the distribution of flyers and posters, and direct communication with potential learners. Information and news on the LFL programme are also announced on local radio and published in local newspapers and on social media. These various promotional activities are effective at creating awareness about the LFL programme.

Any interested learners can join the LFL programme. Local partners (municipal councils, local districts, institutions and associations) approach learners who are already beneficiaries of social services. These partners also offer interested learners further assistance with the actual enrolment process. For example, schoolteachers encourage the illiterate parents or grandparents of their schoolchildren to register with the LFL programme; an intervention team from the Municipal Council of Condeixa then carries out home visits and invites potential learners to participate in the programme. Often, learners from previous programme cycles also recommend LFL to their friends, family members and acquaintances because of their positive experience with the programme.

Recruitment of Facilitators

To date, 30 facilitators have been involved in the programme. The ratio of facilitators to learners is about five to 10 or 15 per session. Facilitators are recruited by CHES and its partner institutions, and are expected to have a qualification related to education, adult education, psychology, sociology, social gerontology, or social service. The educational and professional backgrounds of the facilitators range from experienced adult educators to trainee postgraduate students and other volunteers with or without prior experience and expertise in adult literacy. All facilitators work on a voluntary unpaid basis, however, the programme plans to pay at least two facilitators in the next phase. To show appreciation for their work, facilitators receive certificates after each workshop cycle.

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

Training Workshop for Professionals and Volunteers

Once recruited, all facilitators receive both pre-service and in-service training. Training sessions are conducted by programme coordinators - who are professors from CHES who specialize in adult education and literacy.

By applying an active and participatory learning approach, pre-service training comprises both the theoretical and practical knowledge required for teaching adults. The main curriculum content is based on Paulo Freire’s literacy concept of ‘reading the world’ and emancipatory literacy (Freire,1989; 2006; Freire and Macedo,1987). It covers the following topics: methods and andragogic practices in non-formal multicultural learning 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. The curriculum is slightly modified depending on the needs and context of a particular project cycle and site.

This pre-service training is mandatory for all LFL facilitators. It is also open to other professionals and students who are interested in adult literacy and education. Since the inception of LFL, 90 participants, including 30 LFL facilitators, have taken part in this training. The workshops bring together learners and experts in adult literacy, to work as a community of practitioners in adult literacy and education. One learning outcome of the training workshop is that all participants critically reflect on theories of adult education and further apply their newly acquired knowledge to practices in non-formal learning contexts.

The duration of pre-service training ranges from eight to 40 hours. Prior to each new workshop, the workshop programme from the previous project cycle is revised based on the learning needs and knowledge level of the new participants. Evaluations from the previous training workshop are also used in this revision. For example, as LFL plans to deliver literacy workshops for refugees in Portugal (starting in 2018), the facilitators’ training will be longer with extra content – such as coping with the challenges of multiculturalism in literacy teaching – added to the existing curriculum.

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

Main Programme Activities

The programme divides learners into various groups depending on their literacy level (around 10 to 15 learners per group). Each group attends one session per week, which lasts for one and half to two hours, for a total of 15 to 17 sessions for each project phase (the winter phase is shorter than spring). The sessions cover two main areas: adult literacy – called Letters for Life - and digital literacy or Keys for Life.

“Letters for Life” Workshop

As implied by its name, the focus of this workshop is adult literacy – learners enhance their reading and writing skills. The main learning approach is to expose learners to real life situations that require such skills. During the sessions, learners read leaflets, and different kinds of application forms and bills, and practise how to pay bills or fill out forms with the correct information. To contextualize their learning, they practise writing and reading their family members’ names as well as words relevant to their daily life. In addition, creative writing sessions are held, in which facilitators instruct and support learners in writing their life histories, poetry, lyrics, newspaper texts, and personal letters.

Another aim of the workshop is the promotion of civic engagement. Learners are encouraged to read newspapers critically and discuss various topics such as health, culture, social inequality, sexuality and gender equality. They also share their life experiences and stories about political development in Portuguese history, e.g. the democratic revolution of 1975. Furthermore, learners engage in discussions 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.

Learners attending the Letters for Life Workshop

To foster a love of reading and improve their reading skills, participants learn how to borrow books from a basic library established by the programme. The LFL libraries, which are set up in the room where the literacy sessions take place, contain books on a variety of subjects such as literature, cooking, arts, crafts and poetry, as well as children’s book and books by local writers. Learners are also encouraged to use public libraries so that they can make use of the resources provided. Special sessions in public libraries are offered to learners, so they understand how to use them as a friendly learning space as well as a useful source of information. As a way to enhance their education through intergenerational learning, participants are encouraged to borrow books to take home, and to read and discuss these books with their children and grandchildren. Additionally, as part of their workshop sessions, learners visit public libraries, local newspaper offices and a local higher school of education. Excursions and sessions to places of interest (such as a group trip to the beach) are also organized, as many adult learners have never visited these places.

A daily excursrion to the sea

Simple library set up by LFL

“Keys for Life” Workshop

The Keys for Life workshop aims to help learners improve their ICT skills, particularly those that are essential for their daily lives. Digital skills covered by this workshop include the use of social media, gadgets, email communication, editing electronic texts and photographs, and conducting internet searches. Learners practise digital skills for 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 undertake activities that further enhance the learning process: 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 newspapers, radio and national TV. This allows the voices of adult learners who are neglected by mainstream adult literacy and education interventions to be heard, and creates an opportunity for the advocacy of marginalized citizens.

Alongside practical activities, learners discuss security and ethical issues regarding the use of social media and the internet. A closed Facebook group was created for learners, which encourages the constructive exchange of ideas via social media.

Learners attending the Keys for Life Workshop

Teaching Methodologies

The programme follows adult learning theories including pedagogy for autonomy (Freire, 1996), andragogy (Knowles,1980) and self-directed learning (Knowles, 1975). Planning for each cycle of the programme is flexible and specific to each group of learners – by applying a participatory approach, learners and facilitators work together on both planning and evaluation. Curriculum design starts with learners defining their desired learning outcomes and goals according to a diagnostic evaluation. They also contribute to the planning of learning strategies and themes for the sessions. The learning activities are aimed at both meeting the needs and goals of individual learners and promoting learning between group members of different literacy proficiency levels. This allows facilitators and learners to be positioned at an equal level by applying the horizontal approach to communication. Thus, both improve their learning knowledge and enrich their experience with constructive and consistent support from each other.

In addition, active and effective peer-to-peer interaction is encouraged by using Vygotsky’s theory of Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky,1978). In this way learners, especially those with differing skill levels, support each other while also improving their own abilities. Based on Freire’s literacy method ( Freire,1967), a series of reading and writing activities are planned and organized in order to promote learners’ critical thinking and to contextualize their learning contents. As well as literacy skills, they simultaneously develop social skills, for instance, respect for each other, ICT skills, critical reflection, and other skills necessary for personal, social and professional development.

Computers are an effective tool for raising learners’ interest in their work. They are provided by the programme and its partners (although a few learners bring their own computers). For instance, in Belide, computers are borrowed from the local primary school, since the workshops take place at the weekend. Music is also used to make the learning environment more enjoyable, to introduce learners to new words and apply these words in differing contexts.

Learning takes place in a peaceful and friendly atmosphere where learners are welcomed, and 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 are placed on the tables. Facilitators value the experiences, cultural background, knowledge, needs, interests and life stories of each participant. This positive environment makes learning an enjoyable and pleasant process for the learner.

Teaching and learning materials

There are no standardized manuals or materials used in the training workshops. Rather, the materials are tailored to individual learners’ needs, interests and their literacy proficiency level. 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, in other words learners develop their own materials at home, for instance by writing stories, often with support from their families and friends. They then present their materials to the group at workshop sessions for review or commentary.

Monitoring and Evaluation

By employing Fetterman’s Empowerment Evaluation principles (Fetterman 2005), the evaluation process engages all stakeholders, especially learners and facilitators, in the monitoring and evaluation of their own performance. The programme team includes the coordinators, the facilitators and the learners, who 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 in which learners share their ideas and provide feedback. After each session, the programme team discusses and develops a critical report and works on planning the next session. The report critically describes the learning and teaching process: it identifies learning progress made individually or as a group; analyses difficulties faced by learners; evaluates facilitators’ performance and offers suggestions for further improvement.

To produce a constructive evaluation at the end of each cycle, the programme team conducts a qualitative analysis of each learner in terms of their learning outcomes and engagement in learning. Written texts produced by learners and findings from observations carried out by facilitators are used as source materials for the purpose of this analysis. At the end of the programme, learners receive a qualitative certificate, which recognizes their literacy competency and learning efforts. Though the certificate does not qualify as a formal school qualification, it is officially recognized when learners seek professional training and employment.

Furthermore, an action research study is also incorporated to examine the impact of the programme on learners and their communities. The study is based on interviews with learners and a content analysis of the materials they produce.

Impact and achievements

To date, 80 adult learners have enrolled in the LFL programme (comprising 68 women and 12 men) and all learners have successfully completed all sessions. Some learners, however, were absent from a few sessions due to health-related issues. Many learners have shown their willingness and enthusiasm to participate in the next cycle of the programme and have requested more sessions and field trips.

Family members and relatives of the learners and facilitators have shown their support for the LFL programme by sharing messages of gratitude and encouragement on the programme’s Facebook page, and attending the final awards ceremony and celebratory event.

Importantly, evidence shows that learners with cognitive problems also improved their literacy skills. For example, some learners who refused to engage in conversation and were unable to recognize letters (even to write their own names) at the beginning of the programme were able to write letters or emails to their family members, as well as express their thoughts on the programme in a written form, at the end of the literacy sessions. Adult learners with dementia or other cognitive limitations turned out to be more motivated to learn when digital learning tools were applied. By sharing their life stories, most learners produced original written texts of different genres (see Box 1).

“Liberdade Freedom
É poder ser quem sou. It's being able to be who I am.
É poder viajar para onde quero. It is to be able to travel to where I want.
É não ter ninguém que mande em mim. It's not having anyone to boss me around.
É poder fazer o que quero. It's being able to do what I want.
É muito bom. It's very good.
É ir a todo lado com muito amor e respeito. It is to go everywhere with much love and respect.
Liberdade é não haver discriminação, racismo. It is to go everywhere with much love and respect.
É sermos iguais. It is being equal.
É pensar livremente. It is to think freely.
É ter asas e poder voar. It is to have wings and to be able to fly.
É ser respeitada. It is to be respected.
A Liberdade é tudo." Freedom is everything.

Box 1: A poem written by an LFL group

Furthermore, the improved literacy skills of learners tended to bring other positive changes to their lives. Learners say 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 were unemployed, were motivated to pursue professional training. Positive behavioural changes were also observed among learners, especially those elderly learners who had very low self-esteem and were previously isolated from society. 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 family members, especially those that live far away. The programme has created a strong educational and social community that has embraced its members.

The programme has been referenced in several academic contexts and at conferences. It has also been covered by national public TV and radio, and by several local newspapers. The European Association for the Education of Adults awarded the LFL programme the Grundtvig 2017 Award for Excellence in Adult Education for its outstanding contribution to adult education and community development. The LFL programme also received an honourable mention during the third National Meeting of Education and Training of Adults, organized by the Right for Learning Association (Associação Direito de Aprender). Furthermore, on 7 December 2017, LFL organized the first meeting of Adult Education for Life as a celebration of the European Year of Adult Education. This meeting contributed to the promotion of adult education for all and to the dissemination of good practices in adult education in Portugal, by bringing together the Letters for Life communities. As a result, LFL has gained prominent attention from other potential partners who are interested in developing such programme in their contexts. In 2018, LFL will expand its programme to Bahia 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. After the death of my husband, I signed again to the programme. I’m thankful to my daughter, because she was the one who persuaded me to join this programme, to learn and to socialize here.’ (Mrs. Carmo)

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

‘We are a family!’ (Mrs. Mariana)

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

‘Letters for Life is very good. I have lived here for many years, still I was not up-to-date with what has been happening here. Letters for Life has helped me a lot.’ (Mr. Artur)

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

‘What I liked the most was learning to write on the computer, it would be nice to have more computers to learn more.’ (Mrs. Linda).


It is quite challenging to work with elderly learners, especially those who are institutionalized due to health issues such as dementia. However, the programme seeks to overcome this challenge with integrated and multidisciplinary interventions. In the near future, literacy programmes will be held inside nursing homes (for those who cannot leave the home) and will also engage institutionalized elderly persons in literacy activities outside nursing homes. In doing so, it is hoped that the inclusion of older adults in the community will be promoted.

Reaching men is another challenge. Although, overall, men do have higher literacy proficiency levels than women in Portugal, who men who do not feel reluctant to admit the need for literacy courses. This is demonstrated by the fact that upon registering for the programme, male learners tend to request anonymity and avoid being photographed or filmed, since they do not want to be labelled as illiterate in their community. However, once they are enrolled in LFL, they acknowledge the value of literacy and transform their negative view into motivation for learning.

Additionally, as stated in the introduction, the wider social-political context of adult education in Portugal and its exclusive focus on employability and productivity hinders the smooth progress of adult education programmes such as LFL, which focus on social justice and the well-being of adult learners.


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 its 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 elderly people who are unable to participate outside their residence, LFL will implement its programme in nursing homes and day care units for the next programme cycle. LFL has been seeking financial support (including materials, computers and other facilities) to ensure the sustainability and quality of the programme. The international and national recognition received by LFL have made it easier to establish funding partnerships. To this end, LFL expects to expand, with a larger team and budget.

LFL has created a community of practitioners (of adult literacy and learning) including experts, professionals, trainees, and postgraduate students who specialize in adult literacy, adult education, psychology, social gerontology and geriatric psychiatry. This community will share experiences and improve practices; it will also contribute to 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 conditions.

As one of the key participants of the adult education debate that was initiated by the Portuguese Association for Culture and Lifelong Learning (The programme participated in the Thematic Circle of Literacy of the Portuguese Association for Culture and Lifelong Learning. http://www.apcep.pt/),the LFL will take an active role in promoting adult literacy on the political agenda in the future.


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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: 4 June 2023, 20:36 CEST)

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