SCHOOL’S IN: Literacy is critical

Studies report two-thirds of Canadian workers in the past five years had to learn new skills

For many of us, being able to read is often taken for granted. You get up in the morning, read the daily news, check the weather report and log into Facebook, and each one of these actions requires reading.

But what if you can’t read or your level of reading is low?

The International Adult Literacy Survey measures reading ability on a scale of five levels. Level one and two are defined by a person’s understanding of the mechanics of reading.

Essentially, this means they know how to read and have a basic understanding of the words they are reading.

Level three and higher is when someone can learn by reading. This person has a high enough reading level to acquire knowledge and technical skills efficiently, which is necessary if you live in a country such as Canada where a big part of the economy is knowledge driven.

What this means is that most of the jobs in Canada require a high level of reading –  level three and beyond – but there are a large number of Canadians who only have level one or two.

According to data coming out of Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition 2000 Survey, 40 per cent of youth who drop out of high school don’t have the level three literacy skills required to apply for jobs in Canada. This is the same for 50 per cent of recent immigrants, 65 per cent of aboriginal peoples, 60 per cent of students who drop out of college, and nine per cent of students who drop out of university.

What this reaffirms is that we don’t have a jobs shortage in Canada, we have a skills shortage. In other words, there are jobs only for those who have the right skills and one of those skills is being able to learn on the job, which requires a literacy level of at least level three or higher.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that studies report two-thirds of Canadian workers in the past five years had to learn new skills to perform their job. There are probably a lot of people who are currently employed who struggle to learn new skills and many more who are unemployed or working in a minimum wage job because they don’t have the reading skills necessary to get a better one.

Take for example someone who works in retail. On their first day on the job, they need to be trained on how to use the cash register. This might require reading a manual and understanding the store’s accounting and inventory system, which is linked directly to the data inputted into the cashier.

Even though most of this work includes scanning barcodes, not every transaction is that simple. Returns, coupons and cashing out requires an advanced set of literacy skills, including numeracy.

While it may sound basic, these tasks require the worker to learn and apply new skills.

Take this one step further, someone is hired to work in an engineering firm and the job requires them to use new software programs as well as email.

If their level of reading is below level three, it’s highly unlikely they will develop the competency required to utilize the software without hours of one-on-one training and they will find it difficult to communicate effectively through e-mail.

Many people complain about children spending too much time on computers and smart phones, but at least they are being exposed to the written language and must develop literacy skills to understand the technology and communicate with each other.

If only we could create online and electronic games that move beyond level two literacy competencies, we’d make significant inroads into finding a solution for the skills shortage.

Jane Muskens is the registrar at Okanagan College. Comments can be forwarded to


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