It’s Muskoka Novel Marathon season again, which means I’ll be helping to raise funds for the sixth year in a row. Every year, I feel as if I have to try hard to up-sell the cause. So, if I mean to convince people the importance of supporting literacy programs, I need to know what I’m talking about.
This year, I did a bit more research than in years past. Turns out I was looking at illiteracy wrong all along.
If you can read this post, then chances are you’re not illiterate. Right?
Well, that depends. Define illiteracy.
Illiterate means you can’t read, right? You see letters on a page and you have trouble sounding them out. Teaching literacy means getting right back to the A-B-Cs, right? That’s what I thought of, when discussing literacy programs.
Boy, was I wrong.
Let’s break this down a little.
Some resources make a distinction between pure illiteracy (unable to say which letters represent which sounds) and functional illiteracy (able to read a get well card, but not a training manual).
Low levels of literacy don’t necessarily mean that you can’t read one word after the other, but they do imply that you have trouble achieving a deeper understanding of the material you’re reading, or in making connections and logical inferences with the information you have at hand.
Canadian literacy reports often cite 2003 data, and those data refer primarily to functional illiteracy. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on functional illiteracy.
There are a few different categories often researched when looking at “literacy” skills, as seen on this site by The Canada Council on Learning. For right now, I just want to look at the first three. Briefly, they are:
Document literacy, which means the ability to a) decipher what’s in a document (i.e. a table, chart, graph), and b) use that information in a meaningful way.
Prose literacy takes it one step further: being able to pick out specific, relevant information from a written article or story, despite the inclusion of a wealth of other distracting information.
Numeracy is more than basic arithmetic. For example, one sample question features a list of arrival and departure times for a flight with three layovers, and the respondent must be able to calculate how much time will be spent during two of those layovers.
I would add Computer literacy to the mix too, such as being able to navigate to a given company website, locate a page that states what career opportunities you could apply for, and either be able to contact the company for more information or to apply online.
The category not mentioned in my blog post is problem solving.
Levels of illiteracy
Saying that someone is either literate or illiterate is like saying you either have 20/20 vision or you’re blind. Illiteracy goes beyond being unable to identify letters or sound out a word; literacy represents a range of aptitude. Our first big challenge, then, is to understand that spectrum between high literacy and low literacy skills.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines five levels of proficiency, where level 1 is the lowest and level 5 is the highest. Level 3 is defined as your basic requirements to graduate high school and enter college or university.
Statistics Canada defines in great detail each level of literacy. The tl;dr list looks a bit like this:
Level 1 Prose Literacy: If I give you a three paragraph description of Jackie Robinson, can you tell me what sport he played in? (i.e. can you find a simple piece of information in a simple block of text?)
Level 2: If I gave you a four paragraph description of Jackie Robinson, could you tell me when he first started playing on a mixed-race team? (i.e. can you construct an answer if you have to find two pieces of information – date & which team – from among a lot of other facts?)
Level 3: If I gave you an article about someone else, but that included information about Jackie Robinson, would you be able to tell me in which year Robinson first won a major award in Major League Baseball? (Can you find the name of the award, confirm that it’s awarded through Major League Baseball, and tell me the year, using only this article?)
Level 4: If I gave you an autobiographical article like this one, could you describe how Robinson might have given up, and why he didn’t? (Can you find actions that represent “giving up” and “not giving up”, etc.?)
Level 5: If I gave you an info-dense article like this one, could you tell me why the number 42 was worn as late as 2014, if the number was officially retired in 1997? (Can you filter a lot of information from a lot of information, and pull multiple points together to form a response?)
Consequences of low literacy skills
Diminishing employability: If you can’t make it through a newspaper article, how comfortable will you be with a 20-page training guide? If you can’t read an email that warns of a newly discovered flaw in some heavy equipment at work, how likely are you to be called foolish for “not having paid attention to the memo”?
Let’s take it one step past “unable to read”. Let’s say that you’re a cashier, the total comes to $14.17, I give you a $20, and I ask for change all in coins. Which coins will you give me back? If you can’t do that in your head – especially when there are five other people behind me in line – how likely are you to be given more shifts? If you can’t manage a team schedule because you can’t accurately count how many hours you’ve given each employee, how likely are you to be promoted? If you are a lacklustre employee because of your poor math skills, how likely are you to get a good reference when you apply for something better? Numeracy skills are just as important – and just as neglected – as literacy skills.
Here’s another interesting thing to note: 72% of functionally illiterate people are already employed.
72% of people who need / want better literacy skills are not sitting around on Welfare. But they are underemployed, or overworked, or are stuck in rotating shifts so they can’t attend class regularly; a lot of them have children, too, so what free time they have is taken up by childrearing – the same as those who have high literacy skills.
Health risks: If you can’t make sense of a back-of-book blurb, are you going to be able to understand the dosage, drug interaction and possible side effects of giving adult medication to an 11-year old child? If you don’t have adequate computer skills, how are you going to find out more about that prescription? Take even more time off work to go ask your doctor?
And if you can’t understand the safety instructions, how much more likely are you to suffer an industrial accident?
More on health risks – and other risks – found here: http://abclifeliteracy.ca/adult-literacy-facts
Technical barriers in job searches: Of all the jobs you’ve searched for and applied for in the last ten years, how many did you find online? How many required you to submit a resume in .txt format? How are you supposed to do any of that if you don’t even know how to navigate to a company’s website, find information on how to apply for the job, or correctly format your CV? Computer literacy remains a big issue, even in my own Generation X. How do you learn computer skills if you don’t have a tutor, or a free class to attend? How do you learn these skills if you don’t have cash enough to buy a bus pass, let alone your own computer and updated software?
The scary part is: according to the Barrie Literacy Council, 4 in 10 Canadians fall under Level 3. http://www.barrieliteracy.ca/index.php/the-adult-literacy-issue. Those numbers are based on statistics captured in 2003 – eleven years old already, and you can verify the results by reading this exhaustive, enormous and totally boring OECD report published on this Statistics Canada webpage. Go on – it’s only 388 pages long.
And the forecast is grim: it’s going to get worse from here.
So how is it possible that 40% of us are “faking it”, or just coping on the job? Where is all this illiteracy coming from, if we have free, compulsory public education?
Possible causes of illiteracy
Do a search online, and you can find a lot of speculation – even a lot of anecdotal information. CAVEAT: I have not verified the information in the links listed below. That 388 page OECD/StatsCan report is the one I would take as an authority on illiteracy in Canada.
But, after a quick search and a round table discussion, here are a few possible causes of illiteracy that I’ve come across.
Dyslexia – Maybe the teacher doesn’t know how to adapt his/her teaching style to someone who having trouble keeping their ‘b’s and ‘d’s straight. Maybe there aren’t any parent volunteers or teaching assistants available in that school. Maybe the student has heard this same story so many times before that he’s actually memorized it – convincing you that he’s now “better” at reading after much practice. Here’s a fantastic resource about dyslexia, arguably the biggest driving factor in illiteracy.
Something to consider as well about socio-economic problems (as Mike, Greg and I discussed while I was writing this post): it’s not just about the family of the affected student. If you’re in a blue collar neighbourhood where employment is high, there will likely be fewer volunteer parents to help out with after school programs, overall. And don’t get me started on single-parent families, either. This post is lengthy enough.
Untreated Vision and Hearing Impairment – Maybe the child is ashamed of having to wear glasses, or is afraid of being harassed by his/her peers. Maybe the family just couldn’t afford the optometrist exam or the lenses or the frames. Maybe the child can’t hear what’s being read aloud, or can’t clearly distinguish between one phoneme or another. Maybe teachers just assumed the child had ADHD or a lack of discipline, which is why the child never paid attention to what was on the board.
On that note: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Need I say more?
What if a child is hospitalized for a full year? She is able to pass that year’s school by the narrowest of margins because she was able to get some homework done, and the teacher was, perhaps, overly kind. And what if that missed year is the beginning of a learning gap that echoes throughout their education, because each teacher thereafter assumes “You should know this already” but doesn’t close that gap?
Similarly: what if a child passed that year because of all his other marks, though his reading skills pass by the narrowest of margins? How do you bring up his reading skills, so that they can support his other talents?
Memory problems and other learning disabilities. If you can’t remember the beginning of a paragraph by the time you get to the end, how are you going to be able to enjoy a book? How are you going to pass a simple on-the-job-training quiz?
There might be an argument to be made about class size as well, where smaller classes = better literacy scores in early education, but I wasn’t able to find any supporting documentation in a hurry. But I was able to find documentation proving that plain old-fashioned interest had a big impact on whether or not a student would do well on literacy tests. If they’re bored, they won’t learn. This is not a fault of the education system or of teachers; some kids are interested in painting, others in reading, others still in soccer. Put twenty 8-year olds in a classroom, and maybe half will be interested in reading, and the other half won’t. Kids don’t fit into uniform molds. For one thing, they’re too wiggly.
Racism and Violence – I had a cousin whose teacher assumed that he was a poor student because he was Black, and since he was just some Black kid, she wasn’t going to waste her time on a lost cause. (Important point to note: he was Inuit, born in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, and he used to reverse engineer lawnmower engines for fun when he was a kid. But if you’re going to be ignorant, go big or go home, right?)
What if they’re terrified of coming to school because their parents are Muslim, and they live in a very close-minded neighbourhood? What if a child can’t concentrate because he/she is suffering from acute anxiety, PTSD or other physical symptoms as a result of abuse in the school yard? Or abuse at home?
Immigration and English as a second language – A family moves here, legally and eagerly, from Pakistan. The husband is a pharmacist, but his degree isn’t recognized in Canada. The best job he can get is working security at a golf course. To make ends meet, his wife needs to get a job too. Problem is that during her childhood, in order to support her own family, his wife had to start working as soon as she turned 12, so she dropped out of school. So now, not only is she dealing with ESL troubles, but she doesn’t even have the basic literacy skills in her own language, because she was never given a chance to learn them before she arrived in Canada. (Side note: I worked with that pharmacist-turned-security guard. He drove taxi by day and did security by night, because his wife had neither the language nor literacy skills she needed to get a job of her own.)
Socio-economic factors beyond the student’s control – I went to high school with a young man who was kicked out of his home because he had a fight with his alcoholic father. To support himself through the rest of that school year, he drove a snowplow at night and came to school the next morning – where he promptly fell asleep. I fail to see how this is a “lack of motivation” on his part, but I do not fail to see why his marks tanked between Grade Ten and Grade Eleven. Here’s another good example, if you have the time to read it:
And yes, there are problems within the student’s control, too. In some cases, yes, alcohol is a problem. Drugs too. Getting kicked out of home, or running away. Skipping class to go play computer games. A complete lack of motivation or self-discipline. It happens. Teenaged pregnancies represent an interesting chicken-or-egg scenario: young women with low literacy skills are more likely to get pregnant, but teenagers who have children are more likely to drop out – so…
But in the end, does it matter what causes it?
We need to know the “why” in order to address the underlying causes and to prevent illiteracy. But for right now, let me instead roll up my sleeves and help those brave few who have admitted a problem and have the gumption to fix it.
Problem is, your options for correcting the problem are limited to what you can afford. If governments don’t pay for literacy programs, training costs have to come out of your own pocket. But what if you’re already forced to choose between buying food and paying your electricity bill, let alone hiring a private tutor?
Fortunately, there are loads and loads of tuition-free literacy programs available – if you know where to find them or how to ask for them. And most literacy tutors are unpaid volunteers.
But literacy programs still have overhead costs to cover: property taxes on the building where they meet with their students; books and paper supplies; computers, utilities and internet access. Someone has to pay for the material costs, and if these programs won’t be funded by any level of the government, then okay: I’ll step up and help from the wallet. And I’ll do what I can to encourage others to do likewise.
I realize that raising funds for literacy programs aren’t as universal or as interesting as research into cancer, MS, Juvenile Diabetes, women’s shelters – the list is enormous, and all of those causes are just as worthy as what I support. But wouldn’t it be interesting to think that maybe, with improved literacy, someone can get a better job, which means they can afford to send their own children to medical school – and still have a little left over to help support MS, Juvenile Diabetes or cancer research?
And as a writer, as a reader, as a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist…doesn’t it make sense to invest in consumers, enabling them to earn more of a disposable income so they can buy more stuff – like books? And tuition? And whatever your company is selling?
And Dear Government: don’t people with higher incomes pay more taxes? Invest in the development of your voters, and you improve your economy and see a positive bump in your own coffers.
Listen, if you want to help me to help them – even if it’s only $10 – I’d be grateful. All you’ve got to do is go here before July 9 and knock a few virtual coins into the jar.
I’ve seen what happens when someone walks into a literacy centre and walks out with the ability to read and write her own stories. It’s a thing of beauty.