July 30, 2008

Low literacy a stubborn problem

As published in The Erin Advocate

The news was discouraging to folks who write for a living.

A report last month from the Canadian Council on Learning says that 48 per cent of Canadian adults have low literacy skills. That does not mean they are illiterate (cannot read or write), but that their abilities fall below internationally-accepted standards for coping in a modern society.

The study, Reading the Future, contradicts the idea that literacy is improving in Canada. As the population grows, the proportion of people in the low literacy categories is expected remain the same, with the total rising from 12 million to 15 million by 2031.

This is in spite of the serious efforts of parents and teachers to instill a love of reading and writing in young people. While these efforts are worthwhile, they are only partially successful.

The low literacy group spans all age groups, English and French speakers, immigrants and those born in Canada, and includes some with high school diplomas and post-secondary education. Most are employed, have a strong dislike of computers and believe their skills are “adequate” for their work. Most are relatively close to meeting the international standard.

At the lowest level, a person may, for example, be unable to determine from a package label the correct amount of medicine to give a child. Those at the next level are literate enough to get by from day to day, but their poor literacy makes it hard to conquer challenges such as learning new job skills.

“Millions of our fellow citizens may learn to read, but they cannot read to learn,” said Dr. Paul Cappon, President of the Canadian Council on Learning. Adult literacy levels have been shown to have a profound influence on the growth or decline of a country’s economy, according to the report.

"The Canadian economy will suffer as the number of Canadians with low literacy skills increases, so we need to prepare workers for shifts in their industry and new technologies," said Margaret Eaton, president of the private-sector ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation.

“The issue of literacy in Canada cannot be solved by any one group,” said Dr. Cappon. “Achieving success will require concerted effort from all levels of government, educators, employers, workers, community groups, families and individuals.”

Reading tends to be a quiet, inexpensive activity. Flashy entertainment on television / internet and a whirlwind of activities outside the home don’t foster a reading environment.

“In our busy world, it is hard for people to sit down and read a book,” said Beverley Picken, Supervisor of the Erin branch of the Wellington County Library. “It is important for children to see their parents reading.”

The library runs programs like the Summer Reading Club for children, using posters, stickers, activity books and prizes to make reading more fun. In the Summer Reading Challenge, teens can get a ballot for every book they read, in hopes of winning an iPod. Adults can read from a list of 10 nominated books and vote to choose the winner in the Evergreen Reading Award Programme. Check www.wclib for more library information.

Word literacy is not an end in itself. It is about having the skill and confidence to be a communicator, which can include physical touch, speech, spirituality, music, theatre, visual arts, academic learning and athletics. The school system is dedicated to helping kids reach their potential as well-rounded citizens, but the process starts at birth.

“Early infant reading develops an attitude towards books and print that is vitally important for reading later on,” says Paul Kropp, in his book How to Make your Child a Reader for Life (available at the Erin library).

“We encourage parents to read to their children right from birth,” said Marlene MacNevin, Children’s Services Manager at EWAG (East Wellington Advisory Group) in Erin.

“Each time they help their child connect books to their own experiences – their toys, friends and activities – they are introducing them to literacy by allowing their children to use their imagination.”

EWAG runs provincially-funded “Ontario Early Years” programs in Erin and Rockwood for children up to six years old. Activities include crafts, songs, finger plays, games and stories. Call 519-833-9696 for details.

At the other end of the spectrum are the program offered by agencies like the Wellington County Learning Centre (see www.thewclc.ca) for adults who want to improve their skills. But that is a topic for another day.

As a society, we are right to set high goals for literacy. People should not, however, pass negative judgment on those with lower (or higher) skills than their own. No one should be afraid to expand his or her horizons.

The important thing is to provide opportunities for everyone to improve, at every age. It is a basic democratic right.

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