Are 1 in 6 Canadians illiterate or 10th best readers in the world?

During the last year, we have been given conflicting information about how well Canadians can read. First to be released, in May of 2010, was a Statistics Canada report that claimed 1 in 6 Canadians were functionally illiterate or 14.6% of the 42% who were considered semi-illiterate.  For specific information on those statistics, read this CBC story. It is titled “Canada’s Shame” and is clearly an attempt to justify increasing funding and programs for adults with literacy difficulties.

Now, I am all for helping people who need it. I operated my own private reading clinic for a decade or more to do just that.  But, something is wrong when StatsCan has to use twelve-year-old numbers to make their case. Here, for example, is how the joint StatsCan, IALS (OECD’s International Adult Literacy Survey) study is explained — that the first round of IALS surveys were conducted in 1995, followed by second and third rounds in 1996 and 1998, with the final report pertaining to 23 countries or regions being released in 2000.

So, given how out of date that data was, why was it released in 2010? And, why was it discussed in the absence of other studies — particularly since both studies involved the OECD and data pertaining to the the studies on the reading competency of fifteen-year-olds was already available for 2000, 2003 and 2006? And, just last week, the 2009 OECD’s school-based international test scores in reading were released (December, 2010). Involving 70 countries, that report found that Canadian youth ranked tenth overall for reading, having slipped from 7th overall three years ago in 2006.

Now, here is the Canadian dilemma: Given the latest OECD school-based reading tests and the explanation in the CBC column, how can we have 42% of our population semi-illiterate while our high school graduates are performing well above the norm. I mean, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t be drowning in illiteracy while our kids are excelling.

So, which is it?

Do StatsCan numbers mean we are a country of illiterates?

I would swear that each and every time there is a major literacy study, the percentages get higher. Now, either the teachers in our publicly funded schools are totally inadequate (which some would debate is the case) or it is how illiteracy is defined that is responsible for the ever increasing statistics. And, while I think that decades long social promotion and no-fail policies are likely not helping the literacy rates, the latest StatsCan report is, without a doubt, misleading. 

Specifically, to read this CBC story titled “Canada’s Shame,” is to think Canada is a country of illiterates. Yet, that is simply not true. It is not true because it all depends on how the numbers are collected and analyzed, what assumptions one makes about what it takes to become literate, as well as how one defines illiteracy or semi-literacy. And, in my opinion, StatsCan misses the mark on all three with their seven-country international survey.

Continue reading “Do StatsCan numbers mean we are a country of illiterates?”