• Sonya Gulati, Author |
4 min read

Growing up with teachers for parents, I was imbued with the belief that education and literacy are essential forces of progress. Why? Because education and literacy are the bedrock of socioeconomic empowerment: they empower a person individually, and society collectively. It’s a pearl of wisdom that underscores the value of literacy to any free, equitable and prosperous society.

Today, when I speak to the power of literacy in my work in the public sector, I mean more than reading and writing, but the ability to speak, communicate and understand fundamental mathematical concepts—including the use of everyday technologies, which are changing so constantly and so fast that it impacts our ability to learn other skills. These skills are not acquired in isolation, either: it takes a human-centered approach to government that ensures all people have access to the education and resources they need to unlock the power of literacy for themselves.

With that power comes untold potential. For the individual, literacy is the gateway to good education, meaningful employment and being a more active community member. For countries, high literacy rates beget strong social and economic outcomes that drive productivity, bolster GDP growth and support viable competition in increasingly competitive global markets. I am optimistic when I encounter research showing that increases in a workforce’s literacy skills by a mere average of one per cent can, over time, raise GDP by three per cent every year and boost productivity by 5 per cent.1

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It's hard to understate literacy's role in shaping lives, communities and entire populations. I also doubt (and hope) anyone would question the long-term advantages of prioritizing literacy in all its forms. As I say this, however, countries are struggling to foster and maintain high literacy rates.

Canada is among these countries. Despite our resources and vast education systems, Statistics Canada has shown that as many as one out of six Canadians cannot pass basic literacy tests, and about half of our workforce would not be able to pass a high school literacy assessment. As a result, Canada’s adult literacy averages fall below those of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries like Japan, Sweden and Australia.

We can guess the reasons why literacy rates are falling short and the impact that has on various populations. I have no doubt, for example, that the pandemic played a significant part in recent years by disrupting full-time, in-person learning for students. Children and young adults missed critical years in their learning process, not to mention access to important social experiences and group learning opportunities that are key to the learning process. Virtual classes filled the gap in some ways, but even the most interactive and engaging remote learning programs could not replicate the value of being in a physical class.

I also think of how difficult it can be for newcomers to access the basic education and skills they need to make a new life in Canada. True, there are programs to help them acquire reading and writing skills, but I sometimes wonder if there are enough to keep up with the demand as more and more immigrants and refugees cross our borders looking for better lives. The longer it takes to integrate with their new communities, the longer it takes them to make connections, enter the labour force, find a home and settle.

A lot can be said about why literacy gaps and barriers deserve our renewed focus, too. But let’s talk about how we can start changing the story. I wish I could say there is a simple solution, but as my peers in the public education and academic communities can attest, this is not a "one-size-fits-all" issue.

For one, raising literacy rates begins with gaining a deeper understanding of whom the issue affects and the barriers in their way. With better data and research, we can unravel the contributing factors, be it income levels, where one lives, education models, home environments or otherwise. Once we have a greater sense of the underlying obstacles, we may be able to tailor our resources and support strategies accordingly.

And then, maybe part of the solution is providing more financial assistance. Plenty of households would benefit from additional tutoring or educational programs. I recognize that “throwing money at it” is never the complete answer to a social issue, but that’s not to say it can’t help solve at least a small part of the literacy puzzle. That Canadian investment in training has not kept pace with our peer OECD nations only underscores the potential of this idea.

Lastly, it bears repeating that literacy and numeracy rates benefit from human-centered governance—that is, governments that prioritize the advancement, promotion and preservation of the human skills its citizens need to lead healthy and meaningful lives.

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I would never claim to know exactly what it takes to help that system bring literacy rates higher than they are today. What I do know from my years as an economist, civil servant and public sector advocate is that nothing replaces literacy when it comes to equipping Canadians of all ages and backgrounds with the ability to thrive and flourish. And after all, as Plutarch said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

1. Schwerdt G., and Wiederhold S. (2018) “Literacy and growth: New evidence from PIAAC.” Retrieved November 14, 2023. http://www.dataangel.ca/docs/LiteracyandGrowth_revised_October2018.pdf

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