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Papers Read But Not Understood?
Functional illiteracy problem alarming across age groups, regions, educated

By Mary Ann Prychonda


The sad and astonishing findings of the recently published Southam Literacy Survey dish up powerful food for thought. For journalists, the results are particularly humbling, indicating that most stories that appear in the daily press are incomprehensible to a very large percentage of intended readers – including literates.

The 10-month $295,000 survey found that 5-million Canadians are functionally illiterate, meaning they cannot read or write well enough to do many everyday tasks. And while the federal government has decided that anyone with a Grade 9 education or better is functionally literate, the study found that nearly half of all illiterates have some high school education or better. Indeed, one-third of the illiterate respondents claimed to have finished Grade 12.

The study uncovered its remarkable results through personal interviews with 2,398 adults in 148 Canadian communities and rural areas. But the survey didn't include prisoners, transients, native Canadians on reserves, those living north of the 60th parallel, or immigrants unable to speak either English or French. Peter Calamai, who penned more than 40 articles on the survey for Southam, notes these groups would likely add at least 500,000 more illiterate adults to the survey's total.

Interviews took place in English or French, in the respondent's homes. Those surveyed were asked questions about their background and activities. They were tested for reading, writing and numbers skills using 61 instances from everyday life. They were given as much time as they wanted.

One test involved adding a lunch-tab for soup and a sandwich – and figuring the tip and the change that should be expected. Another required reading the label on a bottle of cough medicine and understanding the right dosage. Still another asked respondents to circle the long-distance charges on a telephone bill.

These were among the 10 easy but most critical everyday instances about which questions were asked. According to the survey's literacy judges, two wrong answers indicate an individual who is only marginally literate and wrong answers to more than two of the 10 questions indicates functional illiteracy.

The survey found that a full 29 percent of adult Canadians cannot identify long-distance telephone charges on a normal bill and half wouldn't be able to find a store by using the Yellow Pages. Other results show:

• Illiteracy increases dramatically from west to east. Seventeen percent of British Columbians are illiterate, while a staggering 44 percent of Newfoundlanders can't read or write at the most basic level.

• While 40 percent of all school dropouts are illiterate, 17 percent of high school graduates also fall into that category. The survey even found a five percent illiteracy rate among Canadian-born respondents who claim to have graduated from university.

• Significantly more men than women are functionally illiterate.

• Thirty five percent of foreign-born residents are functionally illiterate, including U.S. and British immigrants. Excluding the latter, the figure rises to 42 percent.

Interestingly, 45 percent of those classified as functionally illiterate said they read a newspaper every day, not far off the 60 percent of all respondents who claimed to read a newspaper daily.

But the fact that both literates and illiterates are buying and looking at newspapers doesn't mean they understand what they read.

For example:

• Fifty-two percent of those tested in the survey couldn't identify a key person in a 10-paragraph rescue story, even with a copy of the story in front of them. Among literates only, a full 44 percent identified the wrong person in this multiple-choice question.

• More than 50 percent of respondents also could not select the main purpose of a five-paragraph business article, although the purpose was stated in the first paragraph of the article.

Why are so many average Canadians "literally" handicapped? For some the official cause.is dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes it difficult to correctly interpret letters and numbers. In many cases, especially in the past, the problem went undetected, leaving the individual to stumble on alone, often labelled slow or difficult. Many left school in frustration.

What Canadians couldn't do:Incorrect (%)
Circle expiry date on driver's licence6
Read cough syrup instructions10
Sign social insurance card11
Circle correct traffic sign13
Circle charge on telephone bill29
Find a store in the Yellow Pages50
Find amount on income tax table70
Source: The Creative Research Group

Older illiterates often quit school early to earn money to help their families. Once out of school, prolonged lack of reading over the years eroded what little ability they once had. Other illiterates had other problems like impaired hearing or troubled home lives that made learning difficult.

Some developed ingenious methods of hiding their disability at school, and later at work and in life. There is the delivery person who finds the right address by repeatedly asking directions from people on the street until he manages to zero in on his target. Or the guy who always orders the same thing as his date whenever they eat in a restaurant. Or the woman who graduated Grade 12 with honours by memorizing questions and answers for tests.

Whether because they work so hard to hide the problem, or because no one takes the time to care, millions of illiterates manage to get by unnoticed. The cost of illiteracy for these people and society at large can be enormous. For one thing, their crippled access to knowledge and information leads to disfranchisement from mainstream society. Judy Steed wrote on the subject in The Globe and Mail:

Illiteracy is not a genteel affliction .... Where we, the majority, take reading and writing for granted – as in breathing, speaking, laughing, walking – illiterates live in terror of being found out. They feel forever marked, their stigma as alienating as leprosy, driving them further underground. A few will steel their courage and return to school, usually to flee in humiliation. Their lives are endangered. They will buy Raid, which kills bugs, thinking it is Pam, used to oil frying pans, because an unthinking grocer has stocked the two side by side. They will buy adult medication for their children, because they can't read the label and are afraid to ask for help.

"Ask for help?" says a tough, tattooed 20-year-old just out of prison. "When you are this stupid, it's terminal."

In this, the information age, illiteracy will also lead to unemployment for many. The Southam study confirms that illiterate workers in most industries will be hard hit by the need for greater analytical and communications skills. Computerization and automation are forcing major changes in the workplace, changes to which the illiterate – unable to take upgrading courses, or to read manuals and instructions – will have a hard time adapting.

Southam's Calamai identifies the auto industry as one large employer that is beginning to ask for higher reading and math skills from assembly-line workers in an attempt to introduce sophisticated quality controls on the line. At the same time, though, the industry told a federal government task force that "a sizable minority" of its workforce suffers from inadequate literacy and math skills.

Even those who do manage to get and hold jobs suffer. Personal income reported by literates in the survey was 44 percent higher than that reported by illiterates. Surprisingly, though, only 20 percent of illiterates who have worked said that reading and writing were important for their jobs and other areas of life. And only 10 percent of all functional illiterates said they would consider taking remedial instruction to improve their reading and writing.

Much of the reason for this hesitancy stems from a feeling of hopelessness. The school system failed many illiterates. The idea of returning to that same school system is understandably unappealing, even intimidating. Older illiterates who have made it to wherever they are without the Three Rs probably see little reason to change.

But there are literacy programs that renew hope for some of these people. Beat the Street was created by two ex-illiterates to help bring reading and writing to the kids and young adults living on the streets of Toronto. Using street signs, job applications, and grocery ads and lists, Beat the Street volunteers help those who have fallen through the cracks climb back into the "straight" world.

Canada's Illiteracy MapCan't Read (%)
British Columbia17
The percentage of Canadians, by region, who can't read, or write or use numbers well enough to cope in today's world. Among those not covered in Southam's $295,000 literacy survey were those who live north of the 60th parallel.

These kids wouldn't think of enrolling in a conventional literacy class. Beat the Street is successful because it searches out its students and teaches them first what they need to know to get by in their own world. In just two years, the program, which is sponsored by Toronto's Frontier College, has taught basic reading and writing to more than 500 street people. It's given some of them their first chance at life.

Ottawa's ALSO is another innovative program that targets those who won't attend conventional classes, ALSO (Alternative Learning Styles and Outlooks) helps those on social assistance get started in the work force while learning reading and writing skills. The program runs a co-operative industrial cleaning company that provides part-time work for seven people, teaching them how to fill out invoices, cheques, bank deposit slips and how to read instructions on cleaning solvent labels, for instance.

Still, as good as these programs and others like them are, they don't scratch the surface of the massive illiteracy problem brought to light by the Southam study. For that, a far more concerted effort is needed, certainly involving government, but probably unions and employers too.

According to Calamai. that's not happening. He cites the federal government for wasting opportunities, ignoring warnings and for political pettiness on this issue. "The latest addition to this doleful litany is the $1-million in 'development' funds for literacy announced Sept. 8, all that Secretary of State David Crombie was able to salvage from an initial multi-million dollar request to the federal cabinet this spring," wrote Calamai.

Even some federal bureaucrats are ashamed of the government's record on fighting illiteracy, Calamai says. He quotes a 1984 federal internal report that states "it should be readily apparent that the federal government of Canada's direct contribution to literacy education is no more than a pittance."

Most unions and employers seem equally indifferent. Despite obvious dangers to workers posed by those who can't read warning signs or tell the difference between flammable and nonflammable cleaning solvents, for instance, little has been done to deal with illiteracy in the workplace. Perhaps it's understandable. Like most Canadians, union officials and employers may simply underestimate the magnitude of the problem.

The most salient message of the Southam survey is that functional illiteracy is far more widespread than most of us could have imagined. Dealing with the problem requires action on many fronts.

Certainly, journalists are among those who have some soul-searching to do. If the aim of journalism is to inform and communicate, writers and editors who believe the survey's findings may want to rethink their ideas about how to write for the so-called "average" reader. Indeed, the majority of those surveyed by Southam, 56 percent, could not identify the main point in a sample editorial.

One of Calamai's own articles on the Southam study was rated for readability by York University education professor Gary Bunch. The story – no more complex than average – rated at university-level readability, or if scored leniently, at the Grade 11 or 12 level.

Could it be that we journalists have developed a lazy tendency to write for ourselves and our colleagues, more than for our readers? We may do well to remind ourselves to use simple words (when possible), concise sentences and straightforward structures to tell our stories. That is, if we want our work to be read AND understood by the majority of Canadians.

It's even possible that our writing will further improve with the discipline.


Mary Ann Prychoda is a Toronto freelance writer.

Published in Sources, Winter 1988


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