A country as developed as Canada should not experience a low literacy rate of nearly 50 per cent. Although complete illiteracy has been almost eliminated in the developed world, Canada has not eliminated low literacy — defined as having reading and writing skills below a grade 5 level. Reading and writing abilities are measured by educators on a scale from one to five, with three representing a high school completion and the cited requirement by the 2008 International Survey of Reading Skills Survey as the “desired threshold for coping with the rapidly changing skill demands of a knowledge-based economy and society.” In Canada 42 per cent of adults fall below this level according to the survey. Low literacy levels must be recognized for what they are — unacceptable to Canadian society and a detriment to its cultural and economic goals.
Literacy rates directly reflect the levels of education in our country, and both have remained stagnant. According to the United Nations’ Human Development Index, Canada now sits at 11th place with respect to education based on “adults’ average level of schooling” and “the number of years of schooling children can expect to receive.”
Educating our workforce begins with educating children. Children should not be shuttled through the education system in order to complete high school requirements, but instead receive teaching at a level through which they can acquire the necessary skills to communicate effectively with others.
Adults without proper reading skills have a difficult time functioning in society. High paying employment, even in the science or mathematical fields, requires an adequate level of reading to communicate ideas and instructions. Low literacy rates contribute to low incomes. This is not always the case, however, one example being the demand for unskilled labour on Alberta’s oil rigs. Nonetheless, increasing the literacy rate by one per cent would increase economic growth by $18 billion according to the Government of Canada’s Office of Literacy and Essential Skills.
Beyond occupations, reading skills affect our ability to function at almost every level. Reading is required to understand prescriptions, self-care and proper nutrition. Rates in this regard are even lower, particularly for adults over the age of 65, 88 per cent of whom have less than adequate health literacy skills. Being able to read signs and construction notices quickly is essential for safe driving. Reading informs our decisions to purchase consumer products and keep up with the news. For those of us desiring informed political involvement, parsing through carefully worded candidate platforms is a must.
The foundations of language development begins in the home. Many parents are unsupportive when it comes to fostering a love of books and writing. While this seemingly puts mom and dad at fault for low literacy rates, a parent with low literacy levels will not be able to adequately teach their children, contributing to the vicious circle that traps many low income communities, such as First Nations, in poverty. As Canada’s overall literacy levels decrease, the potential for a cycle of poor literacy rates to spread into other communities is high. The economic and cultural costs will be severe.
Luckily, there are organizations combating low literacy levels despite an unsuccessful education system. One such program is Calgary Reads, an early literacy initiative aimed at children in Grades 1 and 2. Calgary Reads works alongside classroom literacy programs through individual tutoring. The University of Calgary’s second cohort of the Scholars Academy Program has partnered with Calgary Reads for their cohort’s service project. The service project is to create awareness of low literacy and to get children interested in reading. President of the service project Arielle Roberts says, “No matter how good technology gets, it will require reading. Everything we do requires the ability to read — street signs, textbooks, instructions and so on. Hardly anything is more fundamental to society than literacy.” Her personal mission is to help develop the language arts in all age groups, especially children.
Today’s society demands more than basic reading and writing skills. A certain level of literacy is required to fully function in our technological and information-based economy, but low literacy nonetheless continues to increase in Canada. Something must be done. If federal and provincial governments cannot revamp the education system to accomodate children lagging behind, they need to support programs such as Calgary Reads, which will promote and supplement the development of practical language abilities. A high literacy rate poses immense benefits to Canadian society’s wellbeing, while a low rate poses grave dangers.