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Almost half of Canadians struggle with literacy

by Archives September 15, 2009

Half of Montrealers over the age of 16 struggle with literacy, according to the Canadian Council on Learning.
“These individuals don’t possess the knowledge and skills needed to adapt with changing technologies in the world and the workplace,” said Nadine Valk, senior research analyst at the Council.
Prose literacy is measured on a scale of levels 1 to 5. It is the most commonly understood definition of literacy, referring to the knowledge and tools required to process information contained in different forms of text. Level 3 literacy is considered the minimum level needed for “coping with the demands of everyday life,” according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. “It denotes roughly the skill level required for successful secondary school completion and college entry,” the organization said.
Montreal and Toronto had the same proportion of residents whose prose literacy was at level 2 or lower. People at level 2, according to the OECD, “can deal only with material that is simple, clearly laid out and in which tasks involved are not too complex.”
The highest percentage of adults with a literacy level of 2 or below was in Saint John, N.B., with 53 per cent. The national average was 48 per cent.
“The deviation between provinces and cities is attributed to a number of factors,” Valk said. “Basic demographic factors influence the numbers,” she added, listing income, employment and age as three examples.
Using Ottawa as an example, Valk pointed out areas of the map that are “really, really bright green.” These areas encompass few residents with low literacy skills. “But then there are parts that are really, really dark red,” Valk said, which signifies the other side of the spectrum, where at least 69 per cent of the residents have literacy skills at level 2 or lower.
The areas of Ottawa that are bright red, like some communities in Montreal and Toronto, tend to have higher numbers of seniors or immigrants. However, Valk noted the test does not distinguish between language and literacy issues.
Valk believes that in order for Canada to keep pace with advancing technologies in a world that is constantly becoming more complex, the nation’s workforce needs to be able to adapt to changes. People with level 2 literacy or lower – who might not be able to process instructions on a pill bottle – are not able to cope with the changes.
“The skill set they have is adequate for dealing with familiar texts,” said Valk. “It’s when things are new and unfamiliar, when the context changes, that’s where the difficulty arises.”
Nikki Luscombe, communications manager for ABC Canada Literacy Foundation, said low literacy rates can have a ripple effect in communities. “It starts with the individual, and the effect it has on their interaction with their friends and family,” she said. “In the bigger context, it effects the direction of the country and the economy.”
Luscombe said individuals can take the first step to improve their literacy by taking advantage of national programs.
The CCL launched an online map last Tuesday, offering a new, interactive way to present adult prose literacy rates in 52,000 cities, towns and communities across the country.
The map combined data from a Statistics Canada report released in 2004 with data from the 2006 federal Census.

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