Adult literacy in Canada: Challenges and opportunities

When we have strong literacy skills, we rarely think twice about how we’ll complete everyday tasks. Duties like shopping for groceries, researching products and services online, and paying our bills come second nature to us – just like the countless other responsibilities that require the ability to read and understand materials.

But these duties can be more challenging for Canadians with low literacy levels. In a global economy where literacy is vital, inadequate literacy skills can significantly affect individual and societal economic and health aspects.

Yet, unfortunately, almost half of Canadians struggle with literacy, even though we have relatively high education rates. And low literacy often passes from generation to generation. The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC) found that many of us can’t complete ordinary tasks, like finishing a job application or sending an email. Overall, Canada is below average compared to other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries regarding adult literacy and numeracy skills.

Since building literacy skills early on is one of the best ways to ensure we reach our full potential in learning, work and life, we must prioritize learning in our early years. But as we age, we must also continue improving and strengthening our literacy skills through lifelong learning.

Below, we’ll delve into the challenges that adults with low literacy levels face, and propose innovative solutions for helping to improve adult literacy in Canada.

The impacts of low adult literacy skills

Economic impacts

A low literacy level affects us economically as individuals and as a nation.

Those with low skills are more likely to experience poorer employment opportunities. There’s a direct correlation between literacy and income – the greater an individual’s literacy level, the greater their potential income. For example, this 2020 U.S. study found that individuals with a lower literacy level made an average yearly income of $34,127, whereas someone with a higher level of literacy made $73,284.

Without strong literacy skills, an employee’s prospects of progressing up the ladder at work are limited, and they’re less able to succeed in the workplace. This UNESCO study found that adults with low literacy skills have incomes that largely flatline through their careers. Conversely, individuals with higher levels of education typically see their income rise to two or three times higher than what they earned at the beginning of their careers.

Businesses themselves suffer when employees have lower literacy skills. This World Literacy Foundation report found that companies experience heightened costs from fixing mistakes, lose customers due to poor communication, and have lower productivity and profits.

With many workplaces shifting to automation, new jobs are emerging. Yet over 40 per cent of Canada’s workforce cannot learn new skills effectively and be highly productive. Not having enough Canadians with the skillsets to fill these new, technologically-advanced positions impacts our nation’s competitiveness.

Social impacts

Although the prospects are limited for employed adults with low literacy levels, others may not even be able to find employment. According to the PIAAC survey, Canadians with low literacy rates are more than twice as likely to experience unemployment than those with higher levels.

Adults with low levels of literacy often have difficulty securing housing, rely more heavily on social assistance, and are more likely to find themselves incarcerated. In fact, offenders are three times more likely than the general population to experience literacy difficulties. Of the Canadians currently incarcerated, 65 per cent possess less than a Grade 8 education, and 79 per cent have not obtained their high school diploma.

Lacking proper literacy skills leads to lower levels of self-esteem, too. When an adult struggles with literacy, they may feel emotions like shame, fear and powerlessness. They may feel ostracized in educational environments and avoid situations where others may discover they have literacy challenges.

Completing forms and applications, understanding government policies and the responsibilities of elected officials, and making changes in communities – through voting and volunteering – becomes challenging. Similarly, adults with low literacy levels cannot understand the traditions and history of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, leading to less cultural sensitivity and awareness.

Health impacts

Overall, it’s more difficult for individuals to manage their health with limited literacy skills.

Understanding dosage instructions, reading medical device directions, and accessing different types of preventative care becomes extra difficult, potentially creating poorer health outcomes in the future.

People with low levels of literacy are more likely to practise poor health behaviours and experience higher hospital admission rates. They’re also less equipped to observe health and safety measures in the workplace.

Improving adult literacy skills

When we put effort into improving adult literacy skills, individuals and society in general will feel a positive impact.

Individuals could lead more productive, successful lives with better health outcomes, social engagement and employment opportunities. Our country would generate additional tax revenue as more people become employed.  Even just a one per cent improvement in literacy levels would eventually create a three per cent increase in GDP or $54 billion annually. Plus, productivity would increase by five per cent.

But improving adult literacy rates isn’t easy – particularly when adults struggle with confidence in educational settings, may have undiagnosed learning difficulties, and hold negative perceptions about learning.

Fortunately, countless ways exist to help adults develop better literacy skills.

1. Assist with retaining skills

Although Canadians leaving high school often have literacy skills, retaining them is another matter. But like other life skills, ongoing practise is essential.

Encourage adults to read as much as possible, highlight words they don’t understand (to research later), and write down interesting words they want to remember for future use.

Recommend visiting the local library, where adults can request numerous resources such as primers, or books for beginning and emerging readers. If visiting the library isn’t possible, remind adults that any reading is important and have them explore newspapers, graphic novels, magazines, or other materials readily available.

Ask adults to set a goal to help them develop their reading skills. For example, they could plan to read ten pages each night. If reading silently becomes too difficult, suggest they read aloud instead, which can help form an image of what the text conveys.

Encourage adults to write using new words from their reading. They can write about anything they’re passionate about to help with motivation.

You could even try to make reading a fun social activity by launching a book club at your adult literacy organization. Ensure you provide as much motivation and encouragement as possible so that adults remain committed to strengthening their skill sets.

2. Offer a range of effective adult literacy learning opportunities

Adults returning to learning often vary significantly in skills and literacy level. Use intake processes and assessments to help direct adult learners on the best pathway to meet their needs.

As a literacy practitioner, try to offer diverse programming with flexible delivery methods. Incorporating learner-relevant resources can help encourage adults to further their skill sets.

Since literacy is not a stand-alone skill set, educate adults on the importance of literacy development within society. For example, ABC Connect for Learning helps improve digital skills – essential in today’s technology-rich environments, whereas ABC Health Matters enables Canadians to take control of their health more effectively.

3. Increase access to literacy programs

Your adult learners are likely already overwhelmed with their day-to-day responsibilities of work, childcare and household tasks. Make skills upgrading as convenient as possible by offering alternatives to classroom-based programming, like online and blended delivery options. There are even countless educational apps that you can use to change up your programming while incorporating digital literacy, too.

Identify and implement innovative teaching approaches to enhance the achievement of learning goals. Including the tools found in most workplaces throughout your programming – like word processing software, social media platforms, email and electronic calendars – can greatly help with literacy.

The bottom line about adult literacy in Canada

Literacy plays a monumental role in our success as individuals and as a society. It is essential to informed decision-making, personal empowerment and community engagement, and is the key to how we interact with the world.

By breaking the cycle of low literacy, adults can surpass the limitations of previous generations and make significant changes in their lives.

Undoubtedly, placing importance on literacy – no matter the individual’s age – is critical to helping a person fully participate in a democratic society.

There’s no better time to start building strong literacy skills than right now. For additional help with improving adult literacy rates in your community, access our free resources or reach out to us for more details.