Do StatsCan numbers mean we are a country of illiterates?

I would swear that each and every time there is a major literacy study, the percentages get higher. Now, either the teachers in our publicly funded schools are totally inadequate (which some would debate is the case) or it is how illiteracy is defined that is responsible for the ever increasing statistics. And, while I think that decades long social promotion and no-fail policies are likely not helping the literacy rates, the latest StatsCan report is, without a doubt, misleading. 

Specifically, to read this CBC story titled “Canada’s Shame,” is to think Canada is a country of illiterates. Yet, that is simply not true. It is not true because it all depends on how the numbers are collected and analyzed, what assumptions one makes about what it takes to become literate, as well as how one defines illiteracy or semi-literacy. And, in my opinion, StatsCan misses the mark on all three with their seven-country international survey.

(1) StatsCan numbers

Based on the CBC article link above, StatsCan suggests that 42% of Canadians are semi-literate and 14.6% illiterate. They apparently came to that conclusion because 15% of those surveyed admitted they don’t always understand what is written on medicine bottles and 27% said they couldn’t identify hazardous waste materials. As a result, Scott Murray of StatsCan is quoted in the CBC article as saying:

“The economic and social costs are large enough that we should be ashamed.” We haven’t made the investments with our own citizens in order to release their full potential.”

Excuse me? We haven’t made the investments in our own citizens? What about the extremely high taxes Canadians contribute towards public education at the elementary and secondary levels? What about the subsidies colleges and universities receive? Yet, our fellow citizens haven’t had a chance to reach their full potential because not enough money has been spent?

Look, I have a Ph.D and sometimes I wish I had a chemistry degree to be able to read medicine bottles. And, unless an individual has taken WHIMIS training, they won’t be able to identify hazardous waste symbols.

(2) Assumptions about adult education

So, right off the bat, any recommendations about adult education as a result of this survey are suspect because they place the blame on all Canadians instead of individuals. Of course, I realize that some teachers do not always do a good job. However, I also realize that the system is set up to push kids through (the social promotion policy I mentioned at the start of this post) which means that some children do not have sufficient time to acquire all the literacy skills they will need in adulthood.

However, what about individual potential and the issue of personal responsibility? There is a progressive/liberal assumption in Murray’s comment that if someone does not learn to read and write at a functional level, it is our collective fault.

Well, I completely disagree because in my experience, for someone “to reach their full potential,” it takes three things: (a) a good literacy program, (b) a positive attitude, and (c) a learner’s ability to persevere to finish that program. Not all can. Not all want to. Yet, unfortunately, all too often, those struggling with reading and writing problems blame everyone else for their problems — be it poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism or reasons for incarceration. That is not helpful because there are many reasons for those kinds of problems and illiteracy is just one.

As some of my regular readers know, prior to my retirement, I operated a reading clinic and private practice where I tested and developed compensatory programs for adults with reading disabilities. What I found was that it was not “programs” alone that changed lives. It was attitude with a capital “A.” In fact, when miracles happened, and they can happen, it was due to what I wrote in a previous post about Mike Holmes “making it right for First Nations,” that people learned to help themselves.

(3) Defining basic and functional illiteracy

The other problem I have with the assumptions in the StatsCan survey results are how basic and functional illiteracy are defined. “Basic” is defined as a starting point while “functional is being able to fulfill a purpose. So, while there is much debate about the differences between the two concepts, it is fairly obvious that being functionally literate is to be able to read adequately.

For example, in my practice and my work with dyslexics, basic literacy was at a Grade 3 performance equivalent level while functional was at a Grade 6-8 performance range — actually enough to get through college or better. Moreover, being in college would likely expand a person’s reading level to somewhere in the Grade 9-12 level. However, that said, remember, most newspaper copy are in the grade six to eight levels, depending on the source, so that range can hardly be considered illiterate.

So, when you read that someone, like Senator Jacques Demers, is functionally literate, it clearly explains, while he may have wanted to read better, he had enough skills to succeed in life.

My conclusions

The crux of the matter is that progressive policies that look for reasons for illiteracy outside the person while assuming the individuals are like putty that can be changed simply by providing ever more programs, won’t work. They won’t work because they are inaccurate and incomplete. Rather, in my opinion, what is needed is combining literacy programming with the conservative values of self-reliance and perseverance. However, neither will be effective if the statistics for what is considered illiteracy do not reflect true illiteracy.  

Something to think about.

6 thoughts on “Do StatsCan numbers mean we are a country of illiterates?

  1. My mother-in-law had a Grade 8 education. This was not uncommon in her era. She was certainly functionally literate and did, under difficult circumstances, bring up her small brood. Her brothers-in-law accorded her the greatest respect.

    I think that in her era (schooling in the WW I and 20’s), there was a greater effort to impart literacy and numeracy. Even when I was a student, I remember the library teacher spending many house trying to impart grammar essentials to various non-receptive schoolmates.

    However, when we think of those times, we must remember that schooling was not a right for all. My mother used to talk of the family the next farm over. Dad did not believe in schooling for girls and, since their farm was outside the ‘compulsory’ boundary for attendance, his daughters were illiterate, learning only what they could on the farm.


  2. My wife spent 27 years as a teacher’s aide and ESL instructor in the Calgary Elementary School system. When she once broached the subject of grade five students not being able to spell at even a grade one level she was informed by the school principal that spelling didn’t matter because all students in the future would be using a spell checker. Ain’t education a wonderful thing!


  3. Maybe they are counting all the people who can’t speak or read english or french, you know, the millions of recent immigrants.


  4. Kevanywhere — The study does say that when non-English as a first language speakers are removed from the statistics, the percentages end up pretty much the same.

    But Powell is right. When I first started teaching, whole language was introduced. They removed the listening centres and didn’t insist on phonics, although many of us kept on teaching discrete phonics and spelling. Now, however, with literacy as the emphasis, I am not sure what they do. If decoding skills and spelling are incidental, combined with social promotion, is it any wonder many can’t read prescription bottles?

    However, my point is that criterion should not be used as the basis of functional literacy. A more accurate question might be: Do you regularly read a newspaper? Do you have any difficulties doing so? If yes, what kind of difficulties?

    Anyway, a grade 8 education was enough to be functionally literate. My husband’s mother only went that far and ended up as a real estate agent in later life and did very well for herself. Not only that, she was a “Scrabble” master and could play like a pro. So, in my opinion, it’s more about attitude than circumstance.

    All the hard time stories in the CBC article are tragic and I feel for the individuals. But, to blame all their difficulties on their reading problems is simply an excuse for bad decision-making in life. We all make mistakes, sometimes big ones, but it is up to us, not society and this or that social program, to turn things around.

    For example, I once worked with a young woman, a single mother with two children. She was basically illiterate because she had dyslexia. I started her on my multi-sensory program and she was starting to show some improvement. However, the process involved working at home one hour three times a week. She always found excuses not to do that homework. So, in the end, she didn’t improve as much as she said she wanted to. Another similar young woman, did her one-hour, not three times a week, but every single day, practising until she would sometimes get a headache. The result was that she went from Grade 3 basic literacy to Grade 8 functional literacy in less than a year. She was able to find and keep a job and last I heard had married.

    So, like I said, it is usually more about attitude and perserverance than anything else.


  5. However, given all your observations, the real culprit in the increase in illiteracy would seem to be elementary and secondary school policies for the last forty years — whole language without phonics and correct spelling and social promotion and no-fail policies. But, is anyone out there listening? And, no I don’t necessarily mean going back to the future with discrete phonics and spelling. There are just too many demands on the hours a day available. But, those skills can be taught in context of a language arts discovery and “language experience” approach.

    Let’s face it, if a child does not have his or her reading fluency skills (decoding and word recognition and word meaning) down pat by the end of Grade 3, they are not going “to catch up” simply by pushing them through to the next grade.


  6. Sandy it is true, sorry to say. Yes I know my grammar and writing can be atrocious at times on the web but I can write properly and at a high level. I have been back to school part-time in the past few years and the 20 somethings cannot read or write and I can attest to that. Furthermore, they refuse to do it nor admit to it. So who does the writing for a group project? I do it so that I can get a decent mark for the course. Yet they are mesmerized by their blackberrys’ though, experts at typing incoherent text into and then extracting from it at blinding speed.


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