Back-to-school time a key part of International Literacy Day
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Back-to-school time a key part of International Literacy Day

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. Today (September 8) is International Literacy Day, a global initiative by UNESCO marked since 1967. This year’s theme involves rethinking the fundamental importance of literacy learning spaces.

Given the disruptions in our schools during pandemic, that seems apropos.

UNESCO notes that school closures and interruptions caused by the COVID-19 crisis have likely driven learning losses and increased dropout rates, a situation especially true for vulnerable populations.

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.

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.

Clearly, the best time to instill reading and comprehension skills is at a young age. That’s where programs that encourage reading come into play.

Research indicates that there are positive effects when young children read and explore books for pleasure, as such activities help build the skills and knowledge that are critical to schooling. Reading for pleasure is facilitated when children have greater access to books. Early exposure, good access and adult support are positive motivators of children’s success with literacy skills.

Conversely, limited exposure and experience with books decreases literacy success for students. Studies show the more exposure to print materials, the higher the success rate.

We may know this, but with so many electronic distractions available to kids, it’s hardly surprising that books have fallen by the wayside in some cases. If that’s the case, encouraging kids to take up any kind of reading is a plus – best not to get too fussy about the content. Some parents object to the likes of comic books, graphic novels and pulp fiction on the grounds that there are better books out there. Perhaps, but a great work of literature gathering dust on a shelf does a child no good. Better he or she discovers the joys of reading from any source than not at all.

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