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Call it Canada’s learning paradox: while more than four in 10 Canadian workers are equipped with some form of post-secondary education—the second-highest proportion in the world—nearly as many adults lack the reading and writing skills needed to succeed in today’s economy.
Our low rates of adult literacy, moreover, have remained stubbornly unchanged through two intensive tests of more than 20,000 people, conducted 10 years apart.
But what does this mean?
In today’s world, literacy is not an absolute, defining a person as either literate or not. Instead, it is a sliding scale. At the low end, 42 percent of Canadian adults are unable to understand and use written information adequately in daily activities at home, at work and in the community. A person’s literacy level affects employment opportunities, income, health, and even the ability to participate in the community.
And learning to read in school is not enough—formal education does not set a person’s literacy levels for life. The literacy scores of Canadians decline with age—people can actually lose their literacy skills if they fail to use them.
Higher levels of literacy benefit both the individual and the country as a whole. Consider, for example, health literacy—the capacity to find, understand and use information that contributes to the maintenance and promotion of good health.
A new analysis by the Canadian Council on Learning has revealed that more than half—55 percent—of Canadians aged 16 to 64 lack the reading skills necessary to cope competently with health information. And this figure rises to 88 percent among seniors—the very people whose health needs are the greatest.
Health literacy is an almost daily requirement, as people take their medications, read nutritional labels, follow safety instructions at home or at work, gauge the value of information posted on the Internet, and receive treatment from health practitioners.
Canadians of any age with poor literacy skills tend to be less healthy. This has serious implications for their quality of life. And, because these individuals put greater demands on our health care system, low health literacy levels should be a concern for all of society as well.
Which is why society has a collective obligation to address the low levels of literacy in general, and health literacy in particular. And the sooner we act, the better.But who, exactly, needs to be involved, and what should they do?
The Canadian Council on Learning has considered these questions in a comprehensive new report entitled The State of Learning in Canada: No Time for Complacency, concluding there is a need for action by just about everyone.
The first action should be to establish pan-Canadian goals for literacy and lifelong learning against which we can measure progress—a measure being taken by many developed countries. We must then develop a tool-box of strategies and investments from which particular options can be selected at any point in time, for learners of all ages.
Provincial and territorial governments have a clear-cut leadership role because education falls under their purview. Because of its interest in Canada’s economic and social development, the federal government also has a direct stake in ensuring our population has the literacy levels needed to thrive in this competitive, globalized world.
Educators must ensure that children graduate from schools with the literacy skills needed to flourish in today’s economy and society, as well as a desire to keep learning throughout their lives. The education system must also do more to support further learning in the home, the community and the workplace.
Municipalities become involved through their control over community resources such as libraries. The private sector has an equally urgent role to play in advancing literacy skills in the workplace. Both employers and unions should focus on ways to help workers achieve their potential as literate, informed and engaged participants in the labour market.
But, in the end, much of the responsibility rests with individuals and their families. Literacy starts with an act as simple as reading to a child. And reading is not just for children. Adults who stop reading and writing lose those skills over the years, with eventual consequences for their health and quality of life.
January 27, Family Literacy Day in Canada, is an appropriate time to reflect on the complex challenge of improving literacy rates across our country. But if we hope to see meaningful progress, we need to depend on the diligence and sustained efforts of many groups and individuals, every single day of the year.
—This article first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on Jan. 27, 2007. Dr. Paul Cappon is president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Council on Learning, a national, independent, non-profit corporation committed to improving learning across the country and across all walks of life.
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