International Literacy Day

International Literacy Day

September 8 is International Literacy Day.

If you could read that sentence, congratulations. According to the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level test it has a grade level of 16.2, or college-level. Forty percent of British Columbians might have trouble reading it.

When most people think of problems with literacy, the image that pops to mind is someone who cannot read at all, or someone who has to sign legal documents with an “X” rather than a signature. In many parts of the world, that image is true.

Worldwide, one in five adults is not literate, and 75 million children are not in school. In British Columbia, we are more fortunate. Our children go to school, and we have opportunities for further education. Very few people in BC cannot read or write at all. However, one million British Columbians do not have strong enough literacy skills to meet the demands of today’s fast-paced and information intensive economy. They might be able to read basic text, but have a hard time with math. They might be excellent employees, but cannot understand the manual for a new piece of equipment. They might be able to sign a permission slip, but not help their children with homework.

In 2005, the provincial government announced five great goals for a golden decade. The number one goal? To make B.C. the best educated, most literate jurisdiction on the continent. Over the past four years, the province has invested in the infrastructure needed to support literacy services across BC. Today, just four years into the golden decade, this infrastructure is being demolished.

In 2008, the province funded 16 Regional Literacy Coordinator positions. The Regional Literacy Coordinators (RLCs) worked to develop and implement literacy initiatives in regions across BC. They built networks to support learners, helped raise awareness and funds for literacy programs, and much more. This July, the funding for all of these positions was cut.

Just a few weeks later, Literacy BC lost $60,000 in funding for the BC Literacy Directory and the Read Line. The Directory is a website that offers information on literacy programs all over BC, and the Read Line is a toll-free hotline where people seeking a literacy program can get personalized assistance.

Together, the RLCs and the BC Literacy Directory/Read Line supported learners, literacy practitioners and volunteers looking to make a difference. They offered regional coordination, and a “one-window” approach for literacy information—two needs identified by BC’s Auditor General in a 2008 report. Today, those supports have been taken away.

In his Throne Speech on August 25, Premier Campbell said, “The impact of the global economic downturn has been much more significant than anyone could have predicted. It obliges us to redouble our efforts to get our economy on a firm footing so we can support critical services such as health care and education.”

Investments in literacy will help us improve our economy by improving worker productivity. Improvements in literacy can even help reduce health care bills. People with low literacy risk mixing up medications, or missing steps when they operate new machinery. In fact, a US study found that patients with the lowest literacy levels had average annual health care costs of $12,974 (US), four times the $2,969 cost for the overall population. Literacy is the ounce of prevention that saves a pound of cure.

In 1987, the Southam News literacy survey showed that BC was one of the most literate provinces in Canada. The survey also showed very low literacy levels in Nova Scotia and Quebec, where almost 80% of the population scored below acceptable levels. Today, because of consistent investments in literacy, Nova Scotia and Quebec’s levels match BC’s, while ours have not changed. Nova Scotia and Quebec are proof that literacy levels can be improved. If BC doesn’t invest in literacy, the other provinces will leave us behind.

Premier Campbell’s 2005 goal of becoming the most literate jurisdiction on the continent is a noble one. If achieved, we would have a stronger economy, more productivity, and a healthier, more engaged population. Literacy is the essential skill. Low literacy skills have a tremendous personal and economic cost. What better time than International Literacy Day to renew our commitment?

About International Literacy Day: On International Literacy Day (September 8) each year, UNESCO reminds the international community of the status of literacy and adult learning globally.

Despite many and varied efforts, literacy remains an elusive target: some 776 million adults lack minimum literacy skills which means that one in five adults is still not literate; 75 million children are out-of-school and many more attend irregularly or drop out. 

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For more information on Canadian Literacy Day activities, visit:

ABC Canada is calling on Canadians to take the International Literacy Day Challenge on September 8. Take the challenge here!