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Literacy at a critical moment in time

Posted on 27 January 2021 by Ryan Dahlman

I talked to a colleague once about literacy and he said within five years, the English language will cease to exist as we know it. 

FWIW. Totes agree. 

What? Exactly.

Family Literacy Day is now in its 22nd year and was celebrated Jan. 27. What did you do to mark the day? It is hard to celebrate other than maybe read to a small child if you are lucky to be around one or perhaps you have made a resolution to read a book a month. 

There are a lot of interesting titles and subjects out there to read. If you can’t afford to buy new or second hand books, there are so many good people working hard at our sadly underutilized and extremely under appreciated libraries. Those who do use them whether it is the wonderful staffs in Medicine Hat, Swift Current or the hardworking ones in small towns like Foremost… library staff are there to help, pandemic or no pandemic. 

The trouble is, even with the technology we as a society are becoming if not illiterate, our skills have never grown beyond a ground level. 

It is approaching scary status. With governments focused on the pandemic, economy and other issues such as environment (stop throwing tomatoes at me Albertans), the problem with our deteriorating literacy levels is that it is going to rear its ugly head. 

So may may think: so what? Can function on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You know what the different emojis mean. Fill out an online dating profile isn’t a problem and the links for buying something on Amazon is relatively easy. 

And herein lies the problem, people are just getting by on a day to day basis, not growing for the future and they are headed for imminent disaster.

There is an assumption that children and teachers will figure it out. Those adults not in school will have the capacity to figure out what they need if they are not fine. Trouble is that is you have struggled your whole life, maybe you don’t know you need a hand up or are too ashamed to get the necessary assistance. 

It isn’t happening. According to ABC Life Literacy Canada “48% of adult Canadians have literacy skills that fall below a high school level, which negatively affects their ability to function at work and in their personal lives.”

While we don’t have to read like Rhodes Scholars, being partially literate is detrimental because reading is critical to living. ABC Life says “It’s the literacy skills you need to live your life full and the new skills you need to acquire throughout your life.”

Take for example, those from different countries. Talking with an immigration expert years ago, he was describing how students from countries are placed in grades by traditional North American standards of age, not literacy level. What happens is an intelligent preteen from another country has the capacity for English literacy at a low grade level but is articulate in his own language but severely struggles here and gets frustrated. Seniors who have struggled their whole lives because  a lower level of education was “good enough” now struggle in today’s world with all the changes say technology or terminology wise. Perhaps due to social circumstances, adults in general fell through the cracks education wise. 

Different life literacies break down and include civic, cultural, digital, family, financial, health and workplace. All are basic aspects of day-to-day living. Trouble is, living in the real world, the one that you are supposed to face every day is a struggle. Let’s look at two of the most important ones: health and financial. 

ABC Literacy says 55% of Canadians have unsuitable numeracy skills, which means that they may struggle with understanding written instructions that rely on charts, numbers and conditional statements (if-then statements). Over half of Canada has trouble with anything numerical: , ban statements, charts that will keep them solvent. Knowing how much money you have, how much you are spending, what is left on the credit card, will you be bankrupt in five years? 

They reveal some other troubling stats both with financial and health issues:

<span>â – ¦</span>17% function at the lowest level, where they may, for example, be unable to read the dosage instructions on a medicine bottle (OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 2013);

•Over half (54.7%) of adult Canadians score in the two lowest skill levels in numeracy, up from 49.8% in 2003;

•People with lower literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed than those who scored higher (Skills in Canada: First Results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) — Statistics Canada, 2013).

•23% of Canadians find it “fairly difficult” or “very difficult” to find out where to get professional help when they are ill, and 54% find it “fairly difficult” or “very difficult” to judge when to seek a second opinion from another doctor (Consumer Health Products Canada, 2017).

People with low health literacy are less likely to: be able to identify their own medications; understand how to take their medications; understand the potential side effects; people with low health literacy are more likely to misunderstand warning labels (Institute of Medicine Roundtable summary, 2017). 

•60% of adults in Canada are unable to obtain, understand and act upon health information and services and to make appropriate health decisions on their own. Seniors, immigrants and unemployed people have, on average, lower levels of health literacy skills (Health Literacy in Canada: A Healthy Understanding â€” Canadian Council on Learning, 2008).

The problem lies in our attitude towards education. It is extremely difficult to see how students are doing in this area of online teaching. Have the teachers been effectively educated on how to teach online. As any stay-at-home parent is finding out, one on one teaching is not easy. How are educators supposed to know how a child is reading from watching 20-30 mainframes on zoom? How are parents supposed to help, not being taught how to teach because it isn’t their profession and in apparently half the cases, may not have the ability to help out because they struggle with literacy themselves. 

We need to figure this out. Literacy needs to be a priority. While some conspiracy theorists may think it is good for those in power to have the masses less educated thus wielding more influence, the opposite is true. There will be nothing to wield over, if the economy collapses with no one having any money to do anything or having to bail people out with cycling borrowed money will push our governments deeper in to debt and no one with purchasing power for businesses to make money and earn a living. Health costs will go through the roof and we will have a very unhealthy situation. 

Leave it to the experts, but somehow we need to reach as many of those possible who need help. There has to be instruction available for those who are under educated, who’ve immigrated here or need some help to function. Perhaps there has to be a universal testing of literacy levels for adults of all ages and backgrounds, perhaps part of the Census? 

Get more funding for libraries so they can hire the staff they need and run programs from there in small town if organizations like the Taber and District Community Adult Learning don’t exist.

People don’t have to feel ashamed or embarrassed if their literacy levels aren’t where they need to be. Let’s just fix it without judgment. Period. 

Knowledge is power. Canada will have a much healthier society is everyone, while not necessarily on the same page, at least we’re in the same book or same shelf. We have to be confident we have the ability to comprehend job application, legal or government forms and not be satisfied we figured out how to convey how we feel or need in 280 characters minus the heart emojis. 

“Totes” indeed.

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