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A Hidden Reading Problem: Jackman-Atkinson

February 15, 2020 8:16 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Editor, myWestman.ca

Reading Book

For a quarter of Canadians, low literacy skills are holding them back and most of them don’t even realize they need help. Historically, we have thought about literacy in black and white terms — you can read, or you can’t. The problem is that in real life, literacy is more of a continuum; how well you can understand the words you’re reading, not just can you read them.

Encouraging literacy is something important to us who make our living by creating material for people to read, but the fact is that literacy skills are extremely important when it comes to navigating in today’s society. While we have done a good job of raising literacy levels so that the vast majority of Canadians know their ABCs, data shows that many Canadians struggle with literacy and the figures are startling. According to the Conference Board of Canada, four in 10 Canadian adults have literacy skills that are too low to allow them to be fully competent in the modern economy. This is according to the International Adult Literacy Survey, a multi-country test first conducted in 1994. The most recent one was conducted in 2003 and out of 13 countries, Canada came in eighth, with a “C” grade.

These tests evaluated participants’ skills at prose literacy: the ability to understand and use information from texts; document literacy: the ability to locate and use information from documents such as forms or schedules; and quantitative literacy: the ability to perform arithmetic functions. Participants’ answers were rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest. For example, someone with level 1 literacy might not be able to determine medication dosage from the side of the bottle.


The trend is likely to persist. A 2012 OECD study looked at literacy levels of 16- to 18-year-olds and found that about 15 percent of these Canadian students scored a 2 or lower.

The biggest challenge in improving literacy is changing our views about who needs help. While most initiatives are aimed at those with the lowest levels of literacy, those with level 2 and lower level 3 skills are among one of the largest challenges to Canada’s competitiveness. These Canadians account for one-quarter of all workers, but their skills make it harder for them to adapt and learn new skills, not only impacting their ability to progress in their careers, but also businesses’ ability to innovate and compete. The problem is that many of these Canadians don’t realize their skills are low, 80 percent rated their skills as “good” or “excellent.”

While those who haven’t completed high school are more likely to struggle, low literacy levels aren’t confined to those with low levels of education. According to Statistics Canada data, across all age groups, among those with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, 17 percent scored at 2 or below. The percentage was higher among older Canadians, showing that literacy skills are something that can be lost if we don’t work to maintain them.

The good news is that for the majority of Canadians who struggle with lower levels of literacy, the solution can be as simple as working to regain skills they once had. In order to retain our skills, we must embrace life-long learning in either a formal or informal way. February is “I Love to Read Month” and while many of the events are aimed at encouraging a love of reading in children, the event also aims to promote life-long learning. This is vital in helping Canadian adults not only retain their literacy skills but also improve them.