Originally published in Calgary Tonite


by Lex Thomas

     Imagine you can't read this sentence. Imagine that d-o-g is incomprehensible, that s-e-e S-p-o-t r-u-n is a meaningless jumble. Imagine you can't write I love you, sign a letter, or sign your name. That's reality for 24 per cent of Canadians over 18.
     Illiteracy isn't simply the inability to read a sonnet by Shakespeare or a novel by James Joyce. It's the inability to know what you're buying unless it has a picture on the label. It's the risk of swallowing cleanser instead of cough syrup. It's the danger of administering the wrong dosage of the wrong medicine to your ill child and endangering his life. It's the futility of directions like "Turn left at Macleod Trail."
     In this, the International Year of Literacy, schools, libraries, governments and private agencies are establishing programs geared to help adults learn to read and write. According to statistics compiled by the Southam newspaper chain in 1987, 21 per cent of Albertans over 18 are illiterate. Of Canada's 24 per cent illiteracy, eight per cent are basically illiterate and 16 per cent are functionally illiterate. Alberta's 21 per cent includes eight per cent basic and 13 per cent functional illiteracy.
     Literacy statistics have traditionally been based on level of education. Less than grade nine was considered functionally illiterate, and grade five or less qualified subjects as basic illiterates. The problem was that there were graduates coming out of universities who were functionally illiterate.
     Southam based their findings on task performance rather than education. Tasks included reading and comprehending dosage on medication, signing one's name at the end of a form, and circling the expiry date on a driver's license. Basic illiteracy was defined as success in less than 25 per cent of tasks. Functional illiteracy required a success rate of 25-78 per cent. Another explanation of the difference is that basic illiteracy as the inability to read at all, whereas functionally illiterate people can read individual words, but are unable to read dense text such as instructions, applications and labels.
     By applying its percentages to census results, the Southam survey determined that 4.5 million Canadians were illiterate. Southam added an additional 500,000 who the survey failed to reach: prisoners, native Indians, those living north of the 60th parallel and immigrants fluent in neither English nor French. Researchers also learned that illiteracy in either official language was higher among immigrants (35 per cent) than among native-born Canadians (22 per cent).
     In 1988, Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney put literacy high on the national agenda by announcing new funding for a national literacy program. Although the $110 million over five years amounts to only slightly more than $4 per person per year, it is nonetheless considerably more than has ever been allocated before.
     Illiteracy today is a greater social stigma than ever before. Although literacy rates have always been about the same, never before has illiteracy been as debilitating. Virtually every job, no matter how menial, requires the ability to read at least enough to complete the job application and to follow basic instructions. Fewer jobs today are learned through apprenticeship where skills are acquired through watching and imitating. More jobs require a high school diploma and at least some post-secondary education. The average blue-collar worker reads almost 100 minutes of work-related material each day.
     Anna Kae Todd, Dean of Academic Programs at Alberta Vocational Centre, believes that negative self-concept and lack of self-esteem are major obstacles that prevent many illiterate individuals from getting the help they need.
     "We need to realize these people have a certain type of literacy," says Todd. "Some have amazing success in coping without the basic skills of reading and writing. They are disadvantaged, but if we don't acknowledge the adaptive skills they have, we put them in jeopardy. I see people here who own a business, yet they can't read."
     Todd sees other barriers as well. There's the perceived stigma of illiteracy, for instance. Fear of failure is a major obstacle, especially for those who may have been labeled as retarded or slow learners in school. Practical considerations, such as the lack of transportation or childcare, keep others from seeking help.
     The Alberta Vocational Centre (AVC) offers part-time and full-time programs designed to help people who have failed to complete their education due to learning difficulties or the lack of opportunity to finish school. The Basic Educational Alternative Delivery (BEAD) program focuses on literacy and the needs of the part-time student. BEAD's 700 students attend classes free of charge in 22 adult learning centers throughout Calgary and outlying areas. AVC also offers a volunteer literacy program that matches a student with a trained volunteer tutor. They may meet at the home of either or in a neutral setting, such as a library. Most matches last one to two years and progress is regularly evaluated.
     The BEAD program is geared for basic educational upgrading to native-born Canadians. English As A Second Language (ESL) is offered to immigrants.
     "We see a tremendous variety of people of all ages and circumstances," says Todd. "More women enroll in our part-time day programs, but it's about even in our night courses. Many of the women are single mothers. Their childcare needs prevent full-time attendance. Some of our students are teenagers, others are retirement age."
     Peggy McDonald, coordinator of the English for New Canadians program at the YWCA sees about 90 adult immigrants come through her program each year. Some are literate in their mother tongue, which makes it considerably easier for them to learn English. Those who are illiterate in their native language tend to have great difficulty because they lack the basic disciplinary skills acquired at school.
     "Some of our students don't know how to organize a notebook," says McDonald. "They get a notebook and they don't know what the lines are for. They have to learn to decode a new system. They lack learning skills and study habits."
     Group classes are held three times a year in 12-week terms. Students can keep coming back for as many terms as they need to get the necessary language practice.
     "We believe a classroom situation builds confidence," says McDonald. "Students may be embarrassed and lack self-esteem, but at least they realize they're not alone."
     One of the major concerns among educators, literacy workers and volunteers is that children raised by an illiterate parent are enormously disadvantaged by the absence of books, stories and other reading material in their environment.
     The Calgary Board of Education is currently in the midst of a five-year program aimed at affirming good school literacy programs and raising awareness of literacy by continuing to build strong links with parents and the community.
     According to Lorne MacRae, Director of Instruction, good school practices entail recognizing the importance of linguistic development in spoken language and in the languages of math, music, science and other disciplines.
     "Parents often don't realize they are the most powerful literacy promoters in their child's life," says MacRae. "Research has shown that from kindergarten to grade 12, children spend 13,000 hours in the classroom. That's the equivalent of 1.5 years. But by the time they start school, each will have had five years of accumulated experience, most of it at home."
     MacRae has presented 78 parent workshops instructing families in their role as literacy models for their children. The Calgary Board of Education is also using popular sports figures to promote literacy awareness in the community. To date, Calgary Flames team member Dana Murzyn has addressed more than 6,000 students on the importance of reading. And in February, Olympic swimmer Mark Tewkesbury will be introduced as a spokesperson for literacy.
     The Calgary Public Library is planning a program to celebrate the International Year of Literacy in March. Guest speaker Richard Darville, a literacy educator, is expected to explode myths about literacy. The CPL also houses a collection of literacy material for new and native-born Canadians, including spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary workbooks, condensed novels, and life skills texts in simplified English.
     One of the highest rates of illiteracy exists in Canadian prisons. Joanne Snyder, literacy coordinator for the Calgary John Howard Society, heads a program for offenders, ex-convicts, their siblings and families. The program, which is free, private and confidential, is offered in community centers, libraries, jails and at the John Howard Society.
     Snyder is justifiably proud of statistics compiled in 1989 indicating that 55 per cent of her students have been in the literacy program for 1.5 years. That's an enormous accomplishment in a transient population that is not routine-oriented.
     "I believe our success lies in the fact that we give participants ownership in the program," says Snyder. "That breeds dedication and effort. We help them to see that they have a voice and we reinforce it every step of the way. That's so important. Nobody's ever listened to a lot of these people."
     The help validate their participants' voices, the John Howard Society has published two sets of readers based on their experiences. To see their own stories in print gives them tremendous pride. Most participants in the John Howard Society program share the same goal.
     "They want to read to their children and grandchildren," says Snyder. "It's extremely fulfilling when they can finally do that.
     "The best way we can help these people is to listen to their stories with patience and understanding. All the time and hard work is worth it when you see them reach their goals."