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Reading is more than a black-and-white issue Add to ...

Canada is experiencing a costly deficit in human capital. Far too many adults in this country have difficulty with basic literacy tasks, and this has serious negative impact on our economy and our social fabric.

Literacy was a top priority this week - as it should be - when education ministers from the provinces and territories met in Toronto. The economic arguments alone to support literacy initiatives are powerful. For instance, new research from Statistics Canada shows that investment in education is three times as important to economic growth over the long run as investment in physical capital, such as machinery and equipment.

When the International Adult Literacy Survey reported in 1996 that 22 per cent of Canadians have serious literacy difficulties, governments in Canada realized that investing in literacy education was needed and began to do so. But, despite all the investment, research and development, the problems of low literacy levels persist. The results of the new International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey, scheduled for release this spring, are expected to show that our deficit in human capital is still growing.

This is not to say that literacy and basic education programs are not helping people; they most certainly are. The problem is that many of the people with low literacy levels never make it into a literacy program. Either they cannot access a suitable program or they are being excluded by policy factors that unwittingly bar their participation.

We know that those who lack even the most basic education and skills have the least access to the lifelong learning endeavours that enrich the lives of individuals, families and communities, while those with the highest levels of education have the most abundant opportunities for learning (i.e. professional development and tuition reimbursement). As the bar of achievement for most Canadians continues to rise, the prospects for those who are not served by traditional educational approaches continue to sink. This means that those who need lifelong learning opportunities the most have the least access to them.

Obviously, this is unfair, but it's also a drag on our economy. A 2004 Statistics Canada study showed that educating the least educated has a greater impact on GDP than increasing the skills of those with higher literacy skills. The positive implications of broader access to learning opportunities would resonate on local, national and global levels for all of Canada.

An essential first step in remedying our adult educational malaise is for the federal government to once again assume an active role in adult basic education - the benefits of a universal publicly funded adult education system would far outweigh the costs. Currently, we have a patchwork of provincial programs largely dependent on project funding. A federal role would integrate services, increase efficiency, improve access, and stabilize programming into a system that Canadians everywhere could participate in.

I applaud the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, which has issued an invitation to federal education colleagues to discuss an infrastructure program. This may represent the beginning of some concrete action on an initiative widely recognized as overdue.

Although I've used the economic argument for literacy programs, literacy should not be confined to this paradigm. For instance, it should not be limited to a labour market issue. For literacy programs to attract and keep students, the content needs to be relevant to students' lives. Learning is a process largely determined by motivation, and it has been proved that the intrinsic desires of learners can be far more powerful pedagogical tools than extrinsic motivations such as work-force mobility.

Also, it is essential that literacy initiatives have a wider perspective than current approaches have allowed. Clearly, for many people with literacy difficulties, formalized education approaches did not work for them the first time around - so why would they be any more effective the second time? When adult literacy policies begin to align themselves with the life roles and learning practices of potential students, a gateway to participation will be created. This is essential for increasing the patterns of participation for those who have not been able to access literacy programming, as well as for speeding the progress for those who are enrolled.

It can seem axiomatic to perceive literacy as a work-force issue to the exclusion of other concerns. But if policy-makers want to see positive results, I would urge them to resist this tendency and consider the whole person.

Literacy is not a simple black-and-white issue of reading and writing. It also involves social, cultural and functional codes that help us participate in our society. It means being aware of our rights and privileges as employees, community members and citizens. The benefits are obvious, not only for the work force, but for the health of our families, the vitality of our communities, the productivity of our population, and our spirit as a country. Our politicians seem to be taking some steps in the right direction. Let's hope they take their lead from the needs of front-line literacy workers and students - those who know what works.

Glenn Pound is executive director at the Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy and the co-ordinator for the Literacy Access Network, Toronto's literacy referral hotline.

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