The ABCs of life

Don’t ask Steve Turner to go for a job interview and fill in an application form before he leaves his prospective new employer’s office. His answer would be: “Can I bring it in tomorrow?”

The reason? Completing the form on the spot, says the 38-year-old Torontonian, might result in his writing something wrong, “misspelling a word or showing people you aren’t able to write out what they want.”

You may be forgiven for thinking Turner’s something of a special case. He completed his Grade Nine. But in a country as advanced as Canada, he’s among a stunning 48 per cent of the population — encompassing all ages — that either can’t read at all or can deal with only the simplest of reading tasks.

Pam Verna, a mother in Kelowna, B.C., is only slightly different. As a child, she didn’t like to read. “It was simply too much work,” she says. And that inability to plumb the knowledge and excitement of books “has turned out to be the weakest facet of my life today.”

Literacy organization

But both Turner and Verna are doing something about their problem. They’re both involved with ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation. This nine-year-old national non-profit orgazation is committed to promoting literacy wherever it can across the country.

Turner, who says “You’re afraid people would talk to you differently because you’re not smart enough to understand what they’re saying,” is seeking assistance from a neighbourhood help organization called East End Literacy. It’s one of scores of small groups across the country dedicated to helping people upgrade their reading skills.

And Verna, who now regrets not spending more time with books as a child, has been working to instill a love of reading in her three-year-old son, Marcello. Together, they took part in a recent six-week Come Read With Us program sponsored by the Okanagan Regional Library and the Central Okanagan Child and Family Resources Society. For two hours each week, she, her peers and their pre-school children got together for crafts, reading and games. The focus of every activity was on books. The figures that illustrate just how widespread illiteracy is come from ABC CANADA, thanks largely to surveys by Statistics Canada. ABC CANADA provides program and campaign support for tutor groups in the field and creates awareness of the implications of illiteracy for the country’s economic and social future.

ABC provides support

The figures that illustrate just how widespread illiteracy in its various forms comes from ABC CANADA, thanks largely to surveys by Statistics Canada. A partnership of business, labour, educators and governments, ABC CANADA doesn’t deal directly with those with literacy problems.

Instead, it provides program and campaign support for tutor groups in the field and creates awareness of the implications of illiteracy for the country’s economic and social future. Indeed, some of the figures are alarming to anyone who still believes almost everyone in the country either knows the language or can read and write.

Business success and literacy

The broad message is that the xtent to which te workforce may only be semi-literate dictates how efficient business can be. It also bears directly on how many workers wind up on unemployment and social assistance.

Chris Featherstone, ABC CANADA’s Toronto-based executive director, says 22 per cent of adult Canadians have serious problems dealing with printed materials. Another 24 per cent to 26 per cent, she adds, can only deal with simple reading tasks.

Unless this performance can be improved, observers argue that Canada’s ranking among world manufacturing, research and development, finance and other sectors, can only deteriorate.

A 1988 study showed that unemployment for anyone with fewer than nine years of schooling was two points higher than the national unemployment rate. Not surprisingly, perhaps, about 45 per cent of new jobs created during the present decade required 16 years of education.

In other words, the days of finding a job in industries requiring only modest education are declining. Recent studies of industries such as agriculture, mining, manufacturing and construction suggest they will provide less employment in the future, while those promising the greatest increase include those needing computer and math scientists, technicians and sales people, marketers, administrators and managers.

Canadian literacy facts

ABC CANADA also conducted a recent report sponsored by Royal Trust Corp. of Canada that found the following:

  • 80% of Canadians over 65 years have low literacy skills, due either to atrophy through under-use and the fact high school was discretionary for many;
  • A higher proportion of immigrants have lower literacy skills than people born in Canada (59 per cent versus 45 per cent);
  • But a higher proportion of immigrants also have the top skills (22 per cent versus 19 per cent);
  • Even excluding the elderly and immigrants, 40 per cent of Canadians aged 16 to 65 still have low literacy skills and 15 per cent are in the lowest literacy category;
  • 20% of recent high-school graduates have literacy skills too low for entry-level jobs;

Canada still compares well with the U.S. and many European countries on mean literacy scores. But a much greater proportion of its population has lower literacy skills than countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden.