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42%: Read it and weep
Business and government need to do more about our shockingly low adult literacy rates

Christine Featherstone
Citizen Special
May 19, 2005

Words can't express: With four out of 10 adult Canadians struggling with basic reading and writing skills, Canada must recognize low literacy for the severe and pervasive problem it is, and take the necessary measures.

t's hard to get your mind around the figure: 42 per cent of Canadian adults have low literacy. That is, four out of 10 Canadians, aged 16 to 65, either can't read store signs or, say, dosage instructions on a medicine package, or can read only the simplest of messages, a limitation that makes it difficult for them to, for example, learn new skills at work.

That statistic jumps out of the pages of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) Survey, released May 11 by Statistics Canada and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

It is also alarming to discover that the percentage of adult Canadians with low literacy has not changed since previous statistics were gathered a decade ago. Why is that?

If the legion of professionals and volunteers across the country who are so passionately involved in tutoring our youth and adults were to feel this unfortunate news was delivering a bad report card to them, they'd be making a big mistake. In fact, they would be misreading the survey's findings. The reality is that if literacy and numeracy teachers and tutors hadn't been there in the last decade, the net effect would likely have been a further slide.

The survey also offers up some encouraging news. There has been an improvement in literacy scores among the five per cent of the population with the lowest skill levels. The mean scores pertaining to the skill of prose literacy among these respondents increased 21 per cent, and for document literacy, 40 per cent.

The survey also tells us that the number of adults participating in education and training has gone up significantly. Close to half (49 per cent) of the respondents in this survey said they had participated in education and training, up from 36 per cent in the previous survey.

These are good things, but they are small victories. We can't help but return to that prevailing 42 per cent of adults who have low literacy.

The survey does offer an answer to why that figure persists. It is not ever stated directly, but it is written large in the picture the survey paints. That picture is one of a very vibrant and changing society, where multiple social, demographic and economic factors have a direct effect on the literacy and lives of individuals.

An increasing immigrant population, more skilled than in the past yet not positioned, often, to realize those skills in the work force; a multitude of adults who need literacy and numeracy training at a workplace that throws up new and more complex communications challenges; the exponential growth in computer technology and in our reliance on it -- these are parts of that picture.

Reducing the numbers of those trapped in low literacy is the responsibility not only of our schools and of our literacy tutors, but of our corporate executives, union leaders, policy makers and politicians.

The survey's findings reveal that there are numerous relationships between literacy and social and economic outcomes. It connects the dots for us quite plainly. Better literacy means better performance from workers. It means fewer people on employment insurance. It means people are healthier and the cost of health-care delivery is reduced.

The ripple effects of increasing literacy are huge. We all benefit from an investment in literacy and, clearly, that investment has not been great enough.

To make real headway in addressing the needs of those struggling with reading and writing at work and in the community, Canada must recognize low literacy for the severe and pervasive problem it is, and take the necessary measures.

More resources should be made available to schools to ensure that sufficient books, materials and teaching staff are available to address the literacy needs of all students. There should be more support for adults who have left the formal education system. There needs to be increased funding to adult literacy organizations, for the addition and furthering of literacy programs tailored to meet adult's needs at home and in the workplace.

Governments should ensure there are policies in place that mean that everyone in Canada is afforded equal access to literacy and numeracy programs. And corporations should follow the leadership shown by the likes of Dofasco Inc., Syncrude Canada and Prince Edward Island's Royal Star Foods Ltd., and develop workplace literacy and basic skills training that enrich their employees' professional and personal lives, and enhance the efficiency of their operations.

The benefits are so great, and the penalty for not acting so dire, that we must take this wake-up call delivered by Statistics Canada and the OECD and put literacy on the national agenda.

Christine Featherstone is president and CEO of ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation.

The High Cost of Low Literacy

The Ottawa Citizen 2005