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.
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.