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Literacy: Progress or Not?


It depends on who you are and where you live!  While significant progress was made from 1990 to 2000, it’s since slowed down when we can least afford it.  The good news is: the global rate of adult literacy is 84%.  The not so good news is 775 million people still can’t read.

September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day by UNESCO in 1965 and first celebrated in 1966.  It is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning.  Imagine your own life if you couldn’t read:  how would you:

  • Cope at work (write a report)? 
  • Take charge of your health (read prescriptions)?
  • Respond to signs (catch the right plane at the airport)?  
  • Text or e-mail (check on your kids after school)? 

And did you know that literacy is no longer just about reading and writing?  It also includes: 

  • Numeracy
  • Comprehension
  • Communication
  • Problem solving 
  • Technological know-how 

It’s interesting that the workplace is becoming more, not less, complex as technology pushes the need for different skill sets.  Workers are communicating more through written language as they e-mail, message and text.

Globally women and youth have the biggest challenges. 

  • Women account for nearly 2/3 of those who can’t read, often because boys are educated before girls.  But when you educate a woman, you educate a village so the ROI is significantly higher.
  • While nearly 90% of youth between 15 and 24 are literate, violence and conflict tends to destroy schools and delay education.  While smartphones and technology will undoubtedly impact youth, jargon and spelling shorthand may contribute to a literacy decline.

Illiteracy is alive and well in Canada!  It’s not just immigrants who have challenges.  48% of adults age 16 and older, even those with high school diplomas, don’t have the literacy skills needed for the working world.    

  • 72% of working Canadians believe adult literacy is a problem among people for whom English or French is their first language
  • 21% of Canadians agree they don’t possess the literacy needed to secure a new job
  • 4 in 10 managers  say that if an employee had literacy challenges they wouldn’t know how to help
  • 20% of Canadian university grads have low literacy skills
  • $2.5 billion is the annual cost to business in lost productivity due to low literacy

Remember Jacques Demers the Canadian Senator and former NHL hockey coach?  When he disclosed he couldn’t read or write very well, he said what saved him was his ability to speak really well.  He shared his “disability” because he wanted people to know that they’re capable of doing something in life even when they have some big handicaps.

If you’re an employer, you may not have recognized the following as problem signs of low literacy:

  • Change initiatives often fail or are slow to be implemented
  • Employees avoid training sessions or fail external training programs
  • Excellent employees continually turn down promotional opportunities
  • Staff make excuses…”I’ll read it later” or “I forgot my glasses“…when reading or writing is required on the spot
  • Employee absenteeism and turnover are high

Three techniques to increase literacy  and engage staff include, but certainly aren’t limited to:

  • Aim print documents at grade 6 literacy to catch the widest possible pool of readers
  • Use  “plain language” (keep it simple) rather than a more academic or legal style 
  • Initiate mentoring (including reverse mentoring) and read-at-lunch programs 

Margaret Eaton, president of ABC Life Literacy Canada says “There’s learning to read and then there’s reading to learn”.  All of us have the right to literacy and the responsibility to ensure our family, friends and colleagues do too.