Raising literacy levels is a national imperative: Frank McKenna
TORONTO, Sept. 5 /CNW/ - Canada must redouble efforts to address its
literacy challenge given the evolving structure of the global economy,
according to a report published today by TD Bank Financial Group.
The report counters the prevailing view that Canada is largely a literate
nation, citing that many individuals lack the adequate literacy skills to
fully participate in the economy and civil society. Moreover, this challenge
is concentrated in specific regions and among various populations, which can
accentuate and entrench economic disparity.
"Our place in the world is increasingly defined by its intellectual,
rather than political, boundaries," said Frank McKenna, Deputy Chair of TD
Bank Financial Group and TD's literacy champion. "High levels of literacy
ensure that we all have the ability to comprehend, compute and convey
information and ideas necessary to support our future prosperity. Improving
literacy levels is a national imperative."
Divides and discrepancies in literacy levels
The report, which was authored by TD's Deputy Chief Economist, Craig
Alexander, noted that almost four in 10 youths aged 15 have insufficient
reading skills; while more than two in 10 university graduates, almost five in
10 Canadian adults and six in 10 immigrants have inadequate literacy skills in
English or French. Francophones and aboriginals also scored lower than the
national average in literacy scores. Significant regional differences were
also cited. Literacy levels tend to decline from above national average in
western Canada to below national average in eastern Canada.
Not only do these outcomes suggest many Canadians are ill-prepared to
participate in the knowledge economy, they can also lead to a number of
pressing societal problems. For instance, poor youth literacy is related to
high school drop out rates, long-term unemployment and higher crime rates.
Poor literacy in English and French amongst immigrants severely hampers the
ability of many new arrivals to integrate into Canadian society and its
Renewed efforts to address the literacy challenge
Concerted efforts must focus on youth literacy, particularly at the early
childhood education, primary and secondary levels. The rationale is simple:
benefits accrue over a longer time span than for adults. Moreover, literacy
appears to be a virtuous circle in skill development. Higher literacy promotes
greater education that, in turn, lifts literacy and helps to develop skills.
Given the particular need in disadvantaged households, and among immigrant and
aboriginal communities, policy makers should treat these challenges with the
Both the provinces and the federal government support literacy
initiatives - and this is most welcome. However, there is little evidence of
any improvement in literacy levels in recent years, which suggests that the
current approach is not working. It may be that meaningful progress is impeded
by lack of coordination. For instance, youth literacy falls largely under the
umbrella of education, a provincial responsibility, but immigration is a
federal concern. There is overlap too in adult literacy. At the federal level,
Human Resources and Social Development Canada runs the Office of Literacy and
Essential Skills. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Canadian Heritage, and
Citizenship and Immigration Canada also run literacy-promoting activities.
Meanwhile, the provinces have their own adult literacy initiatives through a
variety of social-economic programs.
TD suggests a more coordinated and complementary approach could come
about if the federal government becomes responsible for national literacy
standards, while the provincial governments are explicitly responsible for
program delivery. Both levels of government would need to provide financing
for the initiatives.
The private sector should also be encouraged to offer employees the
opportunity to develop language skills and more basic abilities that could
reinforce or bolster their literacy. This can be done in-house or through
The case for improved outcomes
TD estimates that a one per cent increase in literacy rates could boost
the national income by as much as $32 billion, noting that an economic payoff
of more than $80 billion could be achieved if all Canadians reached the
desired level of literacy. Raising literacy skills could also create thousands
of new jobs, lower unemployment and significantly raise personal income - all
of which could play a big role in combating poverty. It could also be key in
reversing Canada's recent dismal productivity performance.
Yet Mr. McKenna notes improved literacy rates extend well beyond economic
gain. "No price tag can be placed on parents who read bedtime stories to their
children. It's an immeasurable but profoundly valuable investment for family,
community and society as a whole."
TD prepared this report with the intent to shine a spotlight on literacy
and provoke discussion about current challenges. This is the first in a series
of studies, with future installments focusing on specific issues or
dimensions. The bank also invests more than $1.5 million in children's
literacy programs annually, including the TD Summer Reading Club and TD
Canadian Children's Book Week that encourage children to discover the joy of
For further information:
For further information: Craig Alexander, Deputy Chief Economist and
author of TD report: Literacy Matters, TD Bank Financial Group, (416)
982-8064; Stephen Hewitt, Corporate and Public Affairs, TD Bank Financial
Group, (416) 983-1315