An episode of CBC Radio’s The Cost of Living aired on Sunday January 17th featured a segment on adult literacy. The link to the segment was shared online along with a longer more in-depth article (Low literacy in Canada is affecting both democracy and the economy)
The report by Falice Chin struck most of the right notes. The focus was primarily on native born Canadians and the impact of low literacy skills on the economy. The comments provided by Michael Burt of the Conference Board were bang on. He pointed out “traditional” Canadian jobs (mining, forestry, oil) did not require high levels of literacy skills. These “high risk, low mobility” jobs are disappearing as the country moves into a knowledge-based economy. In addition, good points were made about how skills atrophy when not used; how low skilled jobs often paid well (think Alberta oil patch), which was not an issue unless the economy changed; and the need for non-technical skills such as problem-solving.
Highlighting Eddy Piché’s story brought this reality to life. Low literacy skills led him to work for most of his life in jobs where he didn’t need to read. Transitioning to a more fulfilling job as a social worker required increased literacy skills. He was able to gain those skills with the help of volunteers from Project Adult Literacy Society (PALS) in Edmonton. Eddy’s story also highlighted how people avoid reading tasks, use supports such as spouses to assist with reading tasks and live with the possibility of being called ‘stupid’ hanging over their heads. The story avoids ‘blaming the victim’ and credits Eddy’s other skills such as problem-solving. I loved this quote from PALS Executive Director, Monica Das,
“People forget to realize that this adult has been able to support himself all this time without someone else knowing that he can’t read or write. You should appreciate the amount of skills that this person has.”
The written article included a piece on how poor literacy skills can affect participation in democratic processes. However, during the radio show, this segment was aired before the literacy segment and so the connection was not as clearly made as it is in the article.
I did have a few issues with the radio segment and the article. For a definition of who is and who isn’t literate, the author uses education levels, that is, high school completion rather than describing PIAAC levels, as in “nearly half of Canadians have a literacy level below high school.” She is obviously considering level 3 as high school completion.
She does it again in what is otherwise an excellent point:
“In short, literacy is not like riding a bike. While Canadians tend to leave the high school level with these skills, it takes practice to retain them and Canada’s economy does not provide the opportunity to do that for many workers.”
She also indicates that PIAAC showed “that many in this country are unable to complete ordinary tasks, such as filling out a job application, reading a news article or sending an email.” I know someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall ever seeing these activities (or any for that matter since the survey instrument is restricted) listed as PIAAC tasks.
I understand that the PIAAC definition of literacy is hard to explain and so people do lean towards using more commonly understood metaphors – high school completion, function literacy, illiteracy – all of which are used in the article. We really do need to come up with better descriptions when using PIAAC data so people can understand what we mean and what we do not mean by literacy without resorting to false analogies like high school completion or everyone needs level 3. If literacy is understood to be fluid depending on the context, the person’s lived experiences, the ease of readability of documents etc., we ought to be able to supply journalists and others with understandable and accurate descriptions.
As P.T Barnum said, “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” The radio segment and article do, in the main, provide a good overview of literacy in Canada, especially as it relates to jobs and training. It is worth sharing as long as you are aware of its few shortcomings.