Opinion: Closing Canada’s literacy gap in a pandemic

Opinion: Closing Canada’s literacy gap in a pandemic

Research suggests the COVID crisis has not only increased inequities in literacy rates, but will lead to deficits in student learning.

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Of all the issues identified as pressing policy concerns in the 2021 federal election campaign, literacy is rarely mentioned by our party leaders.

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This is a missed opportunity. Many of us marked International Literacy Day on Sept. 8. As Canada looks toward a future-facing COVID-19 recovery plan, our literacy challenge, particularly the importance of early learning initiatives, should be a national priority.

Literacy is about more than being able to read or not. It refers to how well people understand and use printed information to function in society and the economy. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Statistics Canada recognize five literacy levels. They range from Level 1 — being unable to read a label on a child’s medicine bottle to properly administer the correct dose, for example — to Levels 4 and 5, which are associated with processing and analyzing complex information. This is the kind of reading you’d need to do to earn a university degree.

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According to the 2013 OECD Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies study, almost half of adult Canadians have literacy skills that fall below a high school level.

A study commissioned by the Fonds de solidarité FTQ and published in March of 2021 suggests that literacy remains an issue for nearly 2.5 million Quebecers. Between 2012 and 2020, the proportion of Quebecers who have difficulty understanding a complex text decreased from 53.2 per cent to 47.8 per cent. However, this progress can be attributed mainly to the replacement of older generations by a more educated younger generation.

Canada’s literacy gap was an issue long before the pandemic. But as the health crisis continues to exacerbate existing economic and health challenges, while increasing levels of precarity, instability and inequality in many households, the need to address the problem becomes more acute.

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Research suggests the pandemic has not only increased inequities in literacy rates, but will lead to deficits in student learning, notably among vulnerable populations. The Institute for 21st Century Questions estimates that some 200,000 Canadian children had no access to any form of schooling — physical or virtual — last year. When it comes to foundational skills such as reading and math, the ongoing disruptions in education are expected to have a long-term impact for children and early learners in their formative years.

Learning to read is the first step in reading to learn. Research shows that 90 per cent of a child’s brain is developed by age five. This is before many children have access to formal education.

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Canada was, in fact, close to realizing a national early learning and child care program before the snap election was called for Sept. 20. The 2021 Liberal plan committed the federal government to working with partners to build a Canada-wide child care program that would include an early learning component. Agreements were signed by eight provinces. The fate of these deals is now up in the air.

Why does this matter? Higher literacy skills lead to an improved quality of life overall. When young children are exposed to language through books, reading and songs early on in life, it helps to prepare them for school, opens the door to a rich participation in civic life, and sets them on a path to success. People with lower literacy skills are at greater risk of lower earnings and higher unemployment rates and experiencing physical and mental health problems and accidents at work.

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In our complex world shaped by the rise of disinformation and the rapidly evolving needs of today’s workplace, information processing skills — literacy, numeracy, problem solving and critical thinking — grow more important by the day.

The future success of Canada in an increasingly challenging global economy is at stake. Closing the literacy gap is both a vital pandemic challenge and a generational opportunity.

Celine Cooper is president of the board of governors and Asha Dixit is executive director at the Fraser-Hickson Institute.

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