Nearly half of British Columbians aged 16 to 65 have difficulty reading well enough to understand a newspaper.
Some don’t even get past the headline.
They also struggle with following instruction manuals, filling out tax returns, reading health information or a rental agreement and using a library catalogue.
According to statistics provided by Decoda – a B.C. organization that provides resources, training, and funds for literacy programs – 16 per cent of B.C. residents scored at or below a literacy level-one score. Level one indicates that a person struggles with tasks such as filling out a form at work, navigating a website, using information on a food label and comparison shopping.
“They’re neighbours, they’re co-workers, they’re people who are in your neighbourhood and your community,” said Shanti Ang, literacy outreach co-ordinator for READ Surrey/White Rock Society, an organization that matches volunteer tutors with “learners.”
Ang and READ Surrey-White Rock president Allan Quigley sat down with Peace Arch News last month (July) to discuss the challenge that many non-readers prefer to hide.
“One of our learners said, ‘hidden in society,’ which is a great quote,” Quigley said, adding that there is a stigma with being a non-reader.
“There’s a certain segment of learners that just fall through the cracks. For whatever reason… they’re not able to access formal education.”
Ang and Quigley have watched how teaching someone literacy skills has “radically” changed lives. But the struggle, they agreed, is connecting with people who can benefit from READ’s free tutoring services.
The oldest learner READ has supported was in their mid-80s. The youngest was 18. She had already graduated high school but still wanted some help.
“Most of the time, what we know is people seek help when something happens,” Ang said, adding that the motivation could be a job, further training, or even the desire to read to children and grandkids.
“Oftentimes, they can’t get into training. They don’t even have the literacy skills to get the training we assume everybody should just go and do,” Quigley added.
Being a non-reader not only affects professional goals, but it starts to wear on a person’s confidence, Ang added.
“We tell our learners that a lot of it is building confidence and belief in ourselves. I met a guy who was quite capable, absolutely capable. He had a lot of challenges – a lot of it was confidence. When he thought, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do this.’ He has taken off.”
READ focuses on native English speakers who, generally, read below a Grade 5 level.
“You wouldn’t know…” Ang said. “We have some very articulate people. One person, she was so bubbly and friendly – really outgoing. She worked in a customer service position – entry level. She refused offers of advancement because she knew that would come out – that she couldn’t read. But she was super good at her job.”
The statistics show that non-readers are out there, but the hardest part is reaching them, which is why READ made contact with PAN.
“It’s OK to say that ‘I’m not very good at sports’ or ‘I can’t do math.’ But, how many people have actually said, ‘No, I can’t read,” Ang said.
“People say, ‘I’ve never met anybody that can’t read,’” Quigley added. “No, yes you have. You just didn’t realize it.”
Quigley said literacy challenges in Canada are akin to a rollercoaster, driven by politics.
“I won’t use the H-word, but under the Conservative Party, federally, it just plummeted,” Quigley said.
“Will it rise again? The rollercoaster? I don’t know. It’s almost as if technology has replaced the need when, in fact, the numbers have never been higher in the history of Canada.”
Quigley says governments often view literacy as a problem, when they should be looking at it as an opportunity.
“It’s what I call literary classicism. It’s an attitude towards those with lower levels of education. It should be a human right… We need to get out to people. There’s an issue here, talk about it,” Quigley said.
READ is designed for adults living or working in Surrey or White Rock who are fluent in English. Tutors and learners work together to come up with a plan based on the learner’s needs. The number of times they meet, and the time spent each session, is up to the learner.
READ also provides tutoring services for numeracy skills.
More than half of B.C. residents aged 16 to 65 are reported to have difficulty in accomplishing some daily tasks due, in part, to limited numeracy skills.
According to data provided by Decoda, 22 per cent of the population are at or below a level-one numeracy rating, meaning they struggle with such tasks as filling out a logbook at work, calculating mileage expenses and reading a scale in metric and imperial.
An additional 30 per cent of the population are at or below a numeracy level two, meaning they struggle with interpreting information from graphs, calculating interest on a car loan and calculating appropriate dosage for children’s cough medicine based on a child’s weight.
Quigley and Ang said that word-of-mouth tends to be the most successful way to attract new learners and tutors.
To learn more about the program, call 778-242-7323 or visit readsurreywhiterock.com