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How Literacy Has Evolved in Canada

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International Literacy Day has been celebrated on September 8 since 1966. The aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies around the world. It's also an opportunity to reflect on how far we've come, and where we need to go next.

As I was thinking about International Literacy Day, my thoughts kept returning to how much has changed during the time I've been working in the literacy field -- and how many of the challenges still remain.

I began working in literacy in 1990 with a contract to develop curriculum materials for the Wellington County Learning Centre in Ontario (which is celebrating 25 years of service in 2013). The first piece I wrote was about construction, followed by others built around topics like banking and engine repair that we thought would interest the Centre's adult learners. Not long after, I joined the Centre as a staff member and eventually became the Executive Director.

The United Nations International Literacy Year was celebrated in 1990, and at the time both the federal and provincial governments were paying a lot of attention to literacy. In 1987 the Southam newspaper chain had commissioned a survey on adult illiteracy in Canada and published a series of articles that were reprinted as "Broken Words: Why Five Million Canadians Are Illiterate," by Peter Calamai. These articles shocked the country and brought the issue to public attention. By 1990 there was significant funding available for literacy initiatives.

The use of the word "illiterate" is a marker of this era. People were divided into two groups: those who were literate and those who were not. This dichotomy supported a corresponding response: that literacy could be delivered to those who were illiterate -- as if literacy were an object and the illiterate were empty vessels that could receive the written word -- if they just attended the right program.

No wonder being labelled as illiterate was a stigma. Unfortunately, it's a stigma that still adheres to literacy programs to some degree, even though our understanding of literacy has changed quite dramatically over recent decades.

The funding for literacy projects that became available during this period created awareness about the problem but did not build the capacity to meet the increasing demand for adult basic education in a coherent and sustainable manner. Adult education across Canada remains a patchwork of programs delivered by voluntary agencies, school boards, workplaces and colleges, administered by different provincial / territorial government departments, often with funding that is cobbled together from various sources and tenuous from year to year.

In Ontario, where most of my experience is, "literacy" was at one time a branch within the provincial government. It was moved from the education portfolio to citizenship and immigration, reflecting the importance of community volunteer agencies in delivering literacy programs but also separating literacy programs from other forms of education. Today, literacy in Ontario is a responsibility of the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, but it is no longer a branch and it is now firmly associated with labour market skills development.

Similar transformations have occurred in the way Canada's other provinces and territories fit responsibility for literacy programs into their departmental structures, but with little pan-Canadian coordination. Literacy is a horizontal issue, with ties to education, the labour market, and social development / assistance. As these are largely provincial areas of responsibility, it has been (and remains) extremely difficult to develop a national approach or strategy for literacy, despite the fact that a variety of stakeholders recognize the high level of need across the country.

As Canada's management of literacy has evolved it has been influenced by advances in our understanding of literacy and international efforts to address literacy as a global issue. The concept of literacy has changed from its early definition as the ability to read and write -- first incorporating numeracy, sometimes including skills in other languages, then moving to the inclusion of other life skills. In 2003, UNESCO put forward this definition:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.

The key difference between this definition and the old literacy/illiteracy dichotomy is the understanding of literacy as a continuum. This works against labelling and stigmatizing some individuals based on test scores and instead recognizes that everyone is on a continuum and will continue learning throughout their lives.

Thinking of literacy as a continuum also challenges the idea that education is something that can be packaged or put in a box. There is a tendency to equate education with a program that that can be competed ("I've finished my apprenticeship") or a certification attained ("I have my Grade 12 diploma") instead of seeing it as an ongoing process. All kinds of learning -- formal classes, interest courses, as well as informal and self-directed learning -- can instead be seen as steps along an individual's path of lifelong learning.

Canada's challenge going forward will be overcoming our jurisdictional issues and departmental silos to create a culture of learning that provides rich learning environments at work and in the community as well as in school -- a culture that recognizes the need for all adults to continue learning, supports adult learners' efforts and values their achievements, and provides myriad opportunities for enrichment throughout life.

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