The invisible problem of low literacy in Canada

Student Studying Sleeping on Books, Tired Girl Read Book, LibraryEveryone deserves to read and write

By Cazzy Lewchuk, Opinions Editor

Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write in one’s native or primary language of instruction. In an expanded definition, it is the ability to utilize information received from text, and to consciously learn from and apply the knowledge gained from reading. Currently, over 12 million Canadian adults experience low levels of literacy. The number is expected to go up to 15 million over the next 15 years, due to population growth and the rising levels of immigrants and seniors.

Low literacy is not the same thing as illiteracy. To be illiterate is to not have the ability to read and write. To be illiterate is even more difficult, and a much more serious problem. While common around the world in areas with lower levels of education, few Canadians are fully illiterate. Nevertheless, there are still too many illiterate adults in our society. Illiteracy is sometimes easier to treat than low literacy, as most people can be taught a basic level of reading and writing. The stigma is a particular factor here, because few people want to admit that they are not able to do a task learned in elementary school. Some go their whole lives hiding their low literacy.

Many factors cause low literacy levels, and by far the most important is education. The majority of the education system is based on learning and retaining information. It is difficult to gain a diploma and conquer the school system without using literacy skills. Illiteracy can be turned into low literacy, and low levels of literacy can become high levels through education.

Education levels and socioeconomic status affect literacy rates. Immigrants and senior citizens are the most likely to report low levels of literacy. Also at risk are visible minorities, people with disabilities, and those with low-incomes. Poverty is a particularly damaging factor, as it creates a cycle; low income causes poor education, and poor education contributes to low income. While marginalized groups are the most affected, the problem affects all demographics. Two out of five high school graduates—and one in five university graduates—in Canada have low literacy levels, as do over half of Canada’s immigrants (regardless of education level).

Canada is regarded as a country with an exceptionally high quality of life. We are among the top 20 best economies and have some of the longest life expectancies and highest education rates. This country fails its citizens if they can live such a modern life, yet cannot comprehend written information at an acceptable level. The costs of education have never been higher, but the amount of Canadians who can’t read a complex novel or do their own taxes is growing in number as well. In the long run, that will be a much larger cost to our society.

The Other Press

The Other Press, Douglas College's student newspaper since 1976. Articles, insight and updates from the New West and Coquitlam campuses.

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