May 12, 2005. 01:00 AM
42% have difficulty reading
No improvement seen in past decade

Lack of strategy to fight illiteracy cited


Four out of 10 Canadian adults on average have serious reading problems, a rate that has not significantly changed in a decade, a study co-authored by Statistics Canada revealed yesterday.

A lack of adequate funding and a strategy to fight illiteracy are largely to blame, a national literacy coalition charged yesterday.

"We were not surprised by the results, but we take this survey as a wake-up call," said Wendy DesBrisay, executive director of Movement for Canadian Literacy.

"The issue has not been taken seriously enough. We don't have a comprehensive strategy across the country for adult literacy."

The numbers released yesterday were based on a 2003 survey in Canada and six other countries, and showed no significant change since the last major study conducted in 1994.

According to the 2003 study, nearly 42 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 could not meet most everyday reading requirements, such as printed text in books and newspaper articles.

The Canadian score results trailed behind those of Norway and Bermuda and ahead of the United States.

The survey also suggests that low literacy levels have a large negative impact on people's incomes.

"When you keep losing your job for making mistakes because you have low-level literacy skills, you need some kind of (outside) income to go to school, otherwise you stay on that treadmill of crummy jobs forever," DesBrisay said.

The survey results were a hot topic of discussion among adult literacy students and instructors at a community centre gathering last night in Toronto.

Angela Hamilton, a single mother of two daughters, said her two years of literacy training have made a big difference in her life.

"It feels so good to have a wide range of vocabulary and being able tell my kids what a word they don't know means," she said.

Hamilton says she hopes to find a decent job next year when her training program is over.

"I felt cheated at high school when I thought I could read and write well, until I found out I had to struggle afterwards with words," she said.

"They (government) should do more to help adults who have these problems."

DesBrisay urged the government to act on a list of recommendations tabled in 2003 by a parliamentary committee, including incorporating literacy programs into the workplace.

Donna Kirby of the National Literacy Secretariat, a division of the Department of Human Resources, said the federal government has recognized the existence of a serious literacy problem.

Kirby says her division receives $30 million each year to improve the literacy skills of Canadians, and the Paul Martin government has promised an additional $30 million over the next three years as part of the 2005 budget.

But with the Liberals threatened by a no-confidence vote expected soon, DesBrisay fears that politics may trump the needs of ordinary Canadians.

"If the budget does not go through, we could be taking one step forward and three steps backward," she said.