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Opening Speech: Senator Lillian Eva Dyck
Council of Ministers of Education of Canada
Pan-Canadian Web-interactive Literacy Forum
Regina, April 13-15, 2008
Veterans, Elders, Ministers, Chiefs, Adult Learners, members of Literacy organizations, registrants. As a member of the Senate of Canada, I welcome you to this unique forum. I am pleased and honored to provide opening remarks.As you all know, literacy proficiency is the daily ability to understand and to use printed material at home, at work and in the community. Level 3, of the five levels, is considered to be the minimum requirement for someone to function adequately in our current modern, knowledge-based economy. Those of us who are below level 3 encounter barriers to full participation in Canadian society and usually cannot access the full economic, social or personal benefits of living in Canada.
First and foremost, let me emphasize why it is important to have good skills in literacy. Being literate – that is, having a reasonably good ability to read and understand various documents or other written pieces of information is a key ingredient in the recipe for living a successful and happy and long life.
Why is that so? Because being literate enables you to get a high school education or its equivalent, and then it enables you to get additional education at the post-secondary level. This in turn increases your chances of getting a job and increasing your income. Greater income in turn allows you to buy better food, to live in a better home, and perhaps to have access to better medical care.
Being literate increases your ability to understand everyday and complex information related to your health. All of the latter increase your state of health, and in the long run, you live longer than someone with low literacy skills. In fact, it has been reported recently that those of us with a post-secondary education live up to 7 years longer. This is a rather significant increase in lifespan. It was stated that “the single best predictor of good health and longevity is probably literacy”.
But the bad news is that far too many Canadians have less than adequate literacy skills. According to the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey, known as the IALS survey, 41 per cent of Canadians scored below level 3 in prose literacy, while in Saskatchewan a smaller percentage, 33 per cent, scored below level 3. What this means is that 41% of Canadians and 33% of Saskatchewanites had significant difficulty in fully comprehending written documents related to daily life in our modern society.
Now, let me ask you this: How do you react to that information? Do you find it shocking? Does it upset you in any way?
1 in 3 people in Saskatchewan, approximately 200,000 people, between the ages of 16 to 65 years struggle with everyday reading. These people are not to blame for this. They are in all likelihood just as intelligent as everyone else, but somehow our educational system has not worked for them.
It sort of surprises me that there isn’t an angry crowd demanding that they have access to more literacy programs, so that they too can reap the benefits of completing their education, earning higher salaries, being better able to provide for their children, and enjoy a lifestyle that is healthier and longer. In a country like Canada, there is no good reason why such a large percentage of us have less than adequate reading and numerical skills.
Many, many reports have concluded that getting a good education is one of the best ways of breaking the cycle of poverty and overcoming the personal and social problems associated with poverty. To succeed in your educational endeavors, you need good literacy proficiency. It has been estimated that if a person completes high school, they will earn an additional $500,000 over their lifetime compared to someone who has not completed high school. Furthermore, if they complete post-secondary training at the college or university level, their lifetime earnings increase by another $500,000.
In order to complete high school or post-secondary training, and gain these enormous economic benefits, one typically must have at least level 3 in literacy proficiency.
Next I want to draw your attention to what the IALS survey found when they examined the literacy proficiency in off reserve, urban Aboriginals. In Saskatchewan, 60% of the off reserve Aboriginal population were found to have less than level 3 prose proficiency. One can estimate that about 22,000 Aboriginals in cities in Saskatchewan had less than adequate prose literacy.
When one compares the literacy proficiencies of the urban Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations, a greater percentage of the Aboriginal population had lower scores. 60% of the Aboriginal population compared to 33% of the non-Aboriginal population had less than level 3 prose proficiency. While the difference between the two groups may appear rather large, is it really surprising given the socioeconomic environment that many urban Aboriginals face? An environment that is too often characterized by poverty. Furthermore,for some Aboriginals, their own language – not English – was their first language. One cannot blame Aboriginals as a group for their lower literacy proficiency. Aboriginal people are just as capable intellectually as non-Aboriginals. I think that it is important to point this out explicitly, because if I were told that I had less than adequate literacy skills, I might feel that it was my fault and that either I wasn’t as smart as everyone else or people might think that I wasn’t smart.
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