Stubborn illiteracy rate is about more than just numbers

Lack of funding is the main reason why the illiteracy rate in Canada is 42 per cent, a rate too high for the country’s own good, say Toronto literacy advocates.

“I think the rate is too high and it’s disheartening,” said Jody Lundrigan, communications coordinator for the Ontario Literacy Coalition. “And the lack of funding is the number one cause. We haven’t seen an increase in funding for over 10 years.”

Lundrigan says Canada needs to have a lower illiteracy rate in order to compete in the knowledge-based economies of tomorrow.

Despite the fact that there are several literacy initiatives in Canada, let alone Toronto, the high illiteracy rate has not decreased in the past decade and a half, according to statistics offered by Lundrigan.

She says that Canada’s illiteracy rate has been this high since 1992 and has remained constant.

“The fact that the rate has not decreased since 1992 is definitely an indication that there’s a problem,” Lundrigan said.

But even though the illiteracy rate hasn’t budged since 1992, it doesn’t mean current literacy programs in Toronto are ineffective, says Sandy Kiverago, director of communications for Frontier College, (a literacy organization).

“Literacy groups out there are doing a great job with what they can and I would absolutely say those programs are working; we have evidence,” Kiverago said.

“But the scope of the problem is bigger than we can tackle with the existing infrastructure. Just because 42 per cent of adults have trouble with literacy skills, that doesn’t mean they are all signing up for literacy programs.

“It’s just that we need more of those programs, and the potential learners need more access to more programs,” he said.

Glenn Pound, executive director of the Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy, a network of people that support and promote adult literacy, has insight on why literacy is a problem in Toronto.

He says that failure in literacy does not necessarily result from an individual’s lack of skill, but how a school deals with whatever may be holding back a student from acquiring the skills.

And Pound’s insight shows that that’s where the lack of funding becomes the barrier to literacy training.

“The school system generally doesn’t have the resources to deal with challenges like an individual’s life circumstances, societal pressures and learning disabilities,” Pound said.

“In Toronto, the number of literacy training programs that’s taking place is only enough for less than one per cent of the people who actually need it,” he said.

An individual who is considered to have a low level of literacy skills doesn’t necessarily mean he or she cannot read or write absolutely.

According to Sherry Campbell, president of Frontier College, illiteracy is determined by how an individual is impacted by the expectations that society has on its citizens’ ability to read and write.

“There are various continuum of people’s ability to read,” Campbell said.

“Parents need to know how to read their children’s student consent forms, commuters need to be able to read the TTC bus schedules, and people taking medicine need to know how to read the information package that comes along with it.

“These are the types of situations that the 42 per cent addresses,” she said.

And Campbell said that the lack of government funding towards literacy training is not the only reason there is a high percentage of people with low literacy skills.

“There’s a real stigma around people getting help,” Campbell said. “As a result they don’t identify it as a need because they are embarrassed that they’ve gone through school yet they are still having trouble with reading and writing.”

Education ministers from each province and territory will get together April 14-15 to seek solutions to Canada’s literacy problem.

Through teleconferencing, the national forum in literacy will take place in 10 cities at the same time.