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There’s no reason to be complacent about literacy rates

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If you’re reading this, basic literacy is not an issue. However, for many Canadians that hurdle remains to be cleared. And in a knowledge-based economy, the bar continues to rise.

Education, early and often, is the key. It’s no coincidence that literacy is a hot-button item in September as students adjust to life back in the classroom. Sunday (Sept. 8) is International Literacy Day, a global initiative marked since 1967. For 2019, the focus is on “literacy and multilingualism.”

While Canada fares better than many other countries in terms of measures such as absolute literacy numbers, high school completion and basic numeracy, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

According to ABC Life Literacy Canada, for instance, 48 per cent of adult Canadians have low literacy skills that fall below high school equivalency and affect their ability to function at work and in their personal lives. Some 17 per cent function at the lowest level.

More than half (54.7 per cent) of adult Canadians score in the two lowest skill levels in numeracy, up from 49.8 per cent in 2003. People with inadequate literacy skills are more likely to be unemployed than those who scored higher.

Of all Canadian adults aged 25 to 65, 49 per cent were in the lower range for literacy proficiency, 55 per cent were in the lower range for numeracy proficiency, and 43 per cent were in the lower range for both literacy and numeracy, reports Statistics Canada.

Literacy is a strong determinant of future success. Given the changing job market and the increasing demands on employees in an information age, we need better skills. Still, almost half of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 have low literacy skills. Fewer than 20 per cent of people with the lowest literacy skills are employed, but impoverished adults often do not have the literacy skills required to get into job training programs. They may need literacy skills upgrading before they can succeed in training programs, but only about five to 10 per cent of eligible adults enroll in programs.

The push to increase literacy rates goes beyond getting a job, of course, but poor literacy and numeracy skills do make it hard to get a job, retain employment and earn advancement. Poor skills hurt individuals, but also come with a societal price both in terms of social supports and lost productivity.

Beyond the economy, those with poor literacy skills are more likely to suffer from poor health (and less likely to report concerns), be more socially isolated and be disengaged from societal issues such as political matters.

We have more books to read than ever before and more ways to read them thanks to computers, tablets, e-readers and even smartphones. But fewer of us are actually pick one up, paper version or otherwise. That’s especially true of young people.

Beyond the risk to writers and publishers, there are longer-term implications for literacy skills, job prospects and even our very democracy given we live in an information age.

Reading – exploring new ideas, concepts and even new worlds – is the pre-eminent way to foster literacy, not only in words but in understanding the world around us. That’s particularly important in an age of declining political involvement, especially among younger people. Researchers are always looking for ways to encourage greater engagement as a way to protect our democracy, including the prospect of greater civic education through our schools.

Clearly, then, there are myriad good reasons to mark International Literacy Day and work towards improvements across society. Anything that encourages reading, for instance, and sends us down that road is a good thing.

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