We’re failing the literacy test

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One of my dearest friends, long gone now, could not read. We’d been close for something like 15 years, speaking every few days, seeing each other every two or three weeks. I respected him immensely, learned from him with every contact, and considered him a very smart guy. Not well educated in any formal sense – he maxed out at Grade 4 – but he knew his way around the world.

Only after his death did I learn that he couldn’t read. I was shocked, not least because he hid that shortcoming awfully well. That skill is apparently typical of those who have trouble with words; they find ways to disguise and compensate. But many of them don’t succeed in life the way my friend did because, what he lacked in literacy, he made up for with strong will and depth of character. He was exceptional.

workers reading documents
(Illustration: istock)

The fact is, recent literacy surveys and analyses done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Statistics Canada, and the Conference Board of Canada show that a whopping 48% of adult Canadians are unable to read, to deal with numbers effectively, or to understand documents and forms well enough to function successfully in our society. It doesn’t mean they’re all downright illiterate, rather that at best they’re not sufficiently well equipped to hold a job for very long, to help their kids with school, maybe even to vote.

Testing done internationally shows that we’re about middle of the pack among 15 OECD countries studied. Not surprisingly, the leading countries are Scandinavian – Norway and Sweden – while at the bottom of the heap are Ireland, the U.K., and the U.S. We’re pretty much tied with Germany and Australia.

Literacy levels

But what are we actually talking about here? To start with, literacy isn’t just being able to read and write. That’s called prose literacy. There’s also quantitative literacy, namely the ability to comprehend numbers and do things like balance a chequebook. A third, separate component is document literacy, or the ability to find and use information from things like application forms, maps, and logbooks.

These abilities are measured at five levels:

Level 1 is the lowest, and this person may not be able to read the label on a medicine bottle. Some 22% of Canadians sit here, according to the surveys, possibly because they’re immigrants who have yet to master the language (though they may be perfectly literate in their native tongue) or because they have a learning disability.

Level 2 people can only deal with very simple material. They may have adapted to everyday life but learning new job skills is very tough. Significantly, these folks tend not to know they’re limited in this way. About 26% of adult Canadians are in this group.

Level 3 is where people, 32% of us in Canada, begin to be more or less fully functional in society. It’s a minimum level for success in life but many jobs demand still higher skills. And that’s increasingly true.

Level 4 includes just 16% of Canadians. Questions at this level on the literacy survey might ask the subject to calculate how much money a person would have if he invested $100 at 6% for 10 years.

Level 5 represents an elite little group — just 4% of Canadians showed the ability to integrate several sources of information or solve more complex problems. A typical survey question at this level would ask the person to calculate the total calories in a hamburger based on a nutritional-analysis chart and the knowledge that a gram of fat has nine calories, requiring a conversion from fat to calories.

What we’re talking about here are essential skills, employability skills, enabling skills. They’re the foundation on which people build their jobs and personal lives, on which they climb career ladders and adapt to workplace changes.

A person should have at least Level 3 literacy skills to function reasonably well in our society, according to Employment and Social Development Canada. The Conference Board of Canada considers literacy skills below Level 3 to be inadequate.

What it means in practice

What does all this mean in practice, as with income and the ability to earn reasonable money? Turns out it means a lot. Out of the six variables that determine earnings variance, a person’s literacy proficiency is the most significant, according to the Conference Board. The other predictors are gender, parents’ education, native versus foreign language, education, and experience.

There are many other implications of inadequate literacy, one of which involves trucking in a very real way. That’s safety, whether in the yard, in the shop, or out on the road. Employees without the requisite reading and comprehension skills may not be able to understand written manuals, warning symbols, and instructions. There’s a real risk to public health and safety.

As a CBC Radio program pointed out this past January, “Another challenge that comes with low literacy is the difficulty in understanding information needed to make informed decisions, both in daily life and at the ballot box.”

Almost half “…of the Canadian population does not hit a level of literacy that can disregard irrelevant or inappropriate content to accurately answer questions about something they have read.”

And you wonder how disinformation spreads so easily?

There are ways to fix our predicament, or at least improve it, but that first demands we actively respect the basic idea of education. I don’t think we give it more than lip service, sadly, and things don’t seem to have gotten better over time. Our high schools do not graduate enough truly literate people, I fear.

Way back in the 1970s I spent a few years as a book editor at a major publishing house, and one of “my” authors made that very point. A professor of English at a prominent university, he wrote an entire book about the issue. He bemoaned the fact that the students he saw entering his first-year classes did not have more than a rudimentary command of the language. Fast-forward to the present where my wife teaches courses in graphic design, as she has done for many years, and she makes the same complaint. Just about every day.

Next time out I’ll explore what we can do about this mess. In a world changing as rapidly as this one does, doing something is imperative. In schools, yes, but also in our workplaces.


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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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  • Hi Ralph
    Oh boy, this is an interesting article to say the least. I am well spoken (Canadian & raised with the English language) and I always read comments on my trucking subscriptions. I believe these statistics you quote a pretty accurate. I have often had to read a comment several times, to simply understand what the person commenting is attempting to say. When I was in Grade 1 and 2, my mother used to have me sit in the kitchen and read aloud to her while she was making supper. I am grateful for that and was likely one of the best readers in my classes. I am curious to see how many may understand the word “literacy” and offer a comment. My husband is a trucker and was raised in the US with not very educated parents and we sometimes get into arguments (if you can believe that) because of how he states things. His statements often come across as something I cannot understand, or appear to be entirely opposite of what he is trying to communicate. It is exasperating at times! I agree that this could be a very serious issue in the trucking industry.

      • Thanks for your comment, Jane. And hey, I’ve been called Ralph incessantly all my life. So no worries. I’m glad you understand the issue, but I’m afraid many won’t. Or don’t want to. Your mother did you a great favour, I think. And the issue you sometimes have with your husband captures the problem well. How do we get on in life if we can’t make ourselves understood? Agreed, reading the comments on almost any post is sometimes a nightmare.

  • Was involved in a study in the 80s, and things seem to have gotten worse. One problem is that grammar is no longer taught, and people are graduating without these basic skills. Many of those people go on to teach. Even if grammatical English is used in the home, if the teacher does not understand pronouns, lie vs lay, etc., the child will speak poorly. Another loss is oral presentation which let the student get immediate feedback on their work and learn to speak clearly. Reading is a habit established early, usually by having someone read to the child. In a house with no books, magazines, etc., this doesn’t happen. Perhaps more emphasis needs to be placed on well paid, literate day care workers?