Geoff Johnson: Improving adult literacy can help fight homelessness


Canada’s 600 public libraries, with their 2.1 million books, are finally getting additional support — at least at the word level — from the federal government, but it’s been a while.

Only 41 percent of Canadians have a public library card, but an estimated 20 percent who have a library card have not used one in the last three years.

As early as 2003, a House of Commons report entitled “Raising Adult Literacy Skills” recommended a pan-Canadian response that would, among other things, “expand support for community learning and partnerships for family literacy, and promote and support more literacy initiatives which involve the participation of public libraries, which make an important contribution to the promotion and development of literacy in our communities.”

Why the renewed concern about literacy in Canada, especially adult literacy?

Because in 2013, Statistics Canada reported that more than one in six adult Canadians, 16 percent, failed the most basic literacy tests.

This is worrying because poor adult literacy and numeracy skills constitute a literacy disability in Canada, with implications for both democracy and the economy. Experts say the gap is partly due to a plethora of jobs in the past that don’t require day-to-day use of reading comprehension and information synthesis skills.

Canada’s results, which have not changed significantly since the first full international assessment of adult skills program in 2013, show that many adults in this country are unable to do common tasks, such as writing. B. filling out an application, reading a news article, or sending an email.

The PIAAC is an international assessment of the information processing skills, both verbal and arithmetic, required to participate in the social and economic life of advanced economies in the 21st century.

It would be tempting to blame an inadequate school system for the situation. But that doesn’t wash out, because Canadian 15-year-olds are among the world’s best performers in reading and math, and they compare well against Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development averages, as they have for years.

Canada, in particular, had the third highest proportion of students with the highest level of reading proficiency (15 percent) of any OECD country. The proportion of Canadian students who failed to achieve minimum reading proficiency (14 percent) was also well below the OECD average of 23 percent (and lower than the rates for the United Kingdom, United States and Australia).

Nonetheless, about half of Canada’s adult population failed to pass the high school assessment, testing the ability to digest longer and more complex texts and process the information accurately.

“In general, compared to other OECD countries, Canada’s adult population is below average in terms of literacy and numeracy,” said Michael Burt, economist with the Conference Board of Canada.

Burt said that people with low literacy and numeracy skills may not be able to read a book or newspaper, understand street signs or price tags, understand a bus or train schedule, fill out a form, read instructions about medication, or to use the internet.

Is it an immigration issue? Again, not really, if opinions are to be based on facts. This may be a factor, however, because 20.6 percent of Canadians (6.8 million people) reported having a first language other than English or French, but only 6.2 percent of Canadians spoke a language other than English or French than “at home”. Language.

A September 2015 CD Howe Institute report, “Underperforming Adults? The Paradox of Skills Development in Canada, by Andrew Parkin, points to the importance of building on Canada’s past success in both education and immigration by targeting skills development and language training to the groups that need it most in need, including older workers and Canadians with less formal education and immigrants, especially those whose first language is neither English nor French.

The best place for this is a literacy program at the local public library.

But the number one reason adult literacy should be high on local, state, provincial, and federal to-do lists is the correlation between illiteracy and homelessness.

Homeless and vulnerable people often have health needs, but their health literacy (ability to read and understand health information) is often unknown. Higher levels of health literacy were associated with housing and higher levels of education.

“Health literacy” is defined as the degree to which individuals are able to receive, process and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.

This suggests that low universal literacy levels are almost certainly a potential barrier to accessing and using health services and information for vulnerable populations.

Check what literacy programs and volunteer opportunities are available at your nearest libraries.

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Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.


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