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Building on the Case for Literacy in Alberta

The Canada West Foundation just released their report ,“The Case for Literacy in Alberta-Life is hard when you can’t read!”. It is great to see the need for increasing low literacy rates spotlighted. We wholeheartedly agree that addressing Albertan’s literacy challenges needs to be a multi-prong approach targeted to various life-stages. However, Calgary Learns wants to respond to some of the report’s assumptions and further build on strategies with respect to adults who have literacy gaps.

Practitioners in the adult foundational learning field witness first hand the complex challenges that adults face when they have low literacy skills. The adult learners in our programs are most often the people who have not had the benefit of early literacy supports, have fallen through the cracks and not completed high school and have a history of disrupted and often aversive formal learning experiences. In addition, they now have the added challenges of navigating work, family and life with skills gaps and attempting to return to learning.

The report stressed the most effective and efficient way to reduce the cost of low literacy, both dollars and human costs, is to provide literacy materials and supports early in the lives of children.

It would be ideal if no Albertan ever had to face the compounding challenges that low literacy brings.   As a previous primary (division 1) teacher, early literacy was my focus.  My successful students most often came from literacy-rich environments at home and/or in their pre-school setting.  The report reflects my experience and recommends that Alberta provide support to parents that would encourage literacy-rich environments in the home.  The challenge is the cyclical nature of low-literacy.  Parents’ own education levels have a large impact on their children’s educational outcomes. The report also recommends that preschool and daycare providers should have access to early literacy training and in turn, be held accountable to provide quality literacy activities daily.

In looking at the recommendations for the school system, the report recommends that the K-12 education system ensure that every child reads at grade level by the end of Grade 3.  As a teacher, it was magical to watch, after explicit instruction and when a child was developmentally ready, the light bulb click on and student’s literacy skills blossom. Targeting the end of Grade 3 is critical, as future academic success with the curriculum is dependent on students no longer focussing on ‘learning to read’ but ‘reading to learn’. Of course, after Grade 3, the K-12 system needs to focus on helping students to further develop and strengthen their literacy skills through reading deeply for information, learning, interest and pleasure, both in print and on digital devices.

Investing in early literacy interventions and supports such as the ones highlighted above make sense as a long game preventative strategy. Unfortunately, at this stage Alberta can not only address our literacy issues solely through preventative strategies. The last PIAAC results indicated that 45% of working-age Albertans had low or poor literacy skills in 2011 with this percentage, according to Lane, unlikely to change when 2024 results are published. This means that 1,269,864 of the 2,821,864 Albertans of working age in 2021, had low literacy. The report further points out that these working-age Albertans would not have the literacy skills required to reliably and consistently perform most jobs in today’s economy.  It cites research that indicates that a 1% rise in average literacy skills would increase productivity by 5 % and GDP by 3%- which translates to about $60 billion dollars.  These numbers actually speak to the strong financial reasons for Alberta to invest also in improving adult literacy for our Province’s benefit now. Interestingly, the research cited also recommended investments focused on reducing the proportion of low-skilled adults in the population as a more viable strategy to improve a country’s economic performance than increasing the share of high performers. It is our belief that Alberta needs to intentionally and more strategically serve these adults’ needs.

Behind statistics are people. Adults with literacy skills and knowledge gaps are also employees, parents, community members and neighbours who may be disproportionately affected by structural and systemic barriers to accessing services, challenges with secure living-wage employment, housing insecurity, food insecurity, stress leading to mental or physical health challenges, and an overall lack of resources.  Although the report indicates that almost every adult can, at a minimum, decode words and locate basic information, this statement minimizes the fact that 15% of Albertans were at Level 1 and below.  Most Albertans don’t fully understand that these Albertans face a host of challenges including not being able to confidently read a prescription, participate in and support their child’s education journey, fill out an application for necessary resources and services or effectively use digital tools.

Life is definitely hard when you can’t read confidently, and as the years progress, it gets even harder with compounding issues.

So how can Alberta approach this issue so no Albertan with literacy gaps is left behind? A multi-prong approach across life-stages is indeed needed.   As noted, approximately 1.3 million working age Albertans have low literacy.  The report though only briefly mentions these Albertans and the potential role of post-secondary, employers and community organizations in addressing their needs.  Our fear is that this proposed approach, along with the somewhat ad hoc approach to addressing adult literacy needs that currently exists, will not get to the heart of the issue.

As a Human Services report stated, “There are challenges to achieving … quality of life, and many of the social problems we want to solve are complex. Some conditions, such as low literacy rates, can affect an individual’s overall well-being. When left unaddressed, these conditions can multiply: a person’s educational level can affect their ability to earn a stable, adequate income, which can lead to other health and social challenges that can limit opportunities for their family.”

Those of us who work in the field know that adults with literacy gaps have complex learning needs and in order to gain and strengthen skills they need to work with skilled and knowledgeable instructors. Asking employers, who do not understand literacy instruction, to simply “embed literacy into onboarding and ongoing training” will not be sufficient.   Expecting all colleges and universities, who had a shocking 9% drop in post-secondary education (PSE) funding in 2022, and a 31% total drop in the previous five years, to start to test all learners for literacy and provide targeted instruction may be unrealistic. It is also important to note that the disadvantaged adult learners would bear the cost of tuition for this learning. Of note, post-secondary institutions are not in the adult literacy programming business. Further, affordable literacy and learning pathways that can lead to post-secondary education are in fact scarce. In addition, research shows that “the more a family relies on the income of an adult learner, the less likely the adult learner is to enroll in and complete college (Smith & Gluck, 2016). Without credentialed skills, adults remain firmly “have-nots” with minimal economic opportunities (Patterson & Paulson, 2016).”Finally, the report’s recommendation that community organizations’ role is simply to advocate for funding to include literacy rich activities at every stage of life minimizes the critical role of community programs and does not systematically and strategically address the adult literacy issue.

To truly address the learning needs of adults with low literacy, an intentional progression of relevant programs is required. The Canada West report highlights a single family literacy program as the only example of an adult program. Family literacy programs, when they intentionally build adult skills, are a great hook to help adults restart their learning journey and as Lane points out, they may be a gateway for adults who experience marginalization. Adult literacy programming includes a wide-range of programming such as literacy tutoring (with a skilled instructor), workplace readiness programs, English as another language training, digital skills training, and courses which support getting GED (high school equivalency).  There are programs that are committed to the intersectionality of adult literacy and poverty, adult literacy and learning disabilities, adult literacy and health, etc. Increasingly, there is also an awareness of the necessity of co-creating meaningful and relevant literacy and learning programs with and for Indigenous adults. However, there is a need for adequate funding to build and sustain more barrier free opportunities in a scaffolded system that fills the many programming gaps that still exist and supports adults to achieve their learning goals.

Ideally an easily accessible, relevant and intentionally scaffolded system with well-trained instructors will help adults reach their goals for life, family and work. Adult learners also need to be provided information and guidance on existing pathways available to them.  These can be the learning opportunities available through the CALP system across the province.  CALP organizations need to ensure that there is programming tailored to the needs of adults performing on the PIACC literacy scale on Level 1 and below.  To meet the diverse foundational learning needs of adults in each community, the Province needs to support the mandate to invest in adults with low literacy and ensure CALP funding reflects the need. It is often said that adults who are marginalized are not left behind because of lack of potential but rather because of lack of opportunity. 

Today’s economy makes the opportunity cost for participating in community programs challenging. Adults with low literacy need to work in precarious low paying jobs to support their families.  They are caught in a system that keeps them in poverty.  Alberta Works is rarely available to support Albertans who participate in community literacy programming. Considerations about funding to offset the opportunity costs of returning to learning would also enable adults with low literacy to participate in programming.

Life is definitely hard when you cannot afford housing, food, pay energy costs and maintain reliable internet and technology to access resources …and you cannot read well.

For Alberta’s prosperity we must focus on raising literacy rates for all Albertans. The intersectional spaces of literacy and the multi-pronged approach across life stages requires the Alberta Government to address literacy through a strategic and cross-ministerial approach.  This ideally includes the long-term early literacy investment highlighted in this report, along with a concurrent strategic investment in learning programs for adults for whom traditional educational pathways are no longer an option. This allows for both immediate economic gains for Alberta and long-term investment in its future.

Written by Nancy Purdy, on behalf of Calgary Learns

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