A 40 Year Plan to Solve Low Adult Literacy

be there
"Struggling with literacy is a serious problem for too many people in our community," Times & Transcript managing editor Al Hogan said yesterday. "As a company that understands the importance and value of the written word, we wanted to do our part to raise literacy levels right here at home."
You can help raise a reader today
Times & Transcript Sept 23, 2009

Once upon a time, a group that funded work with young children offered us some money to use for a family literacy program we were planning. It was a wonderful gesture. But, for whatever reason, we had enough money. So we thanked them, turned them down as gently as we could, and suggested a different program which we knew was struggling for funds.

That happens sometimes among community groups. We don't follow a business model. We don't maximize revenue in a dog eat dog fashion. We try to look at a bigger picture. We try to do what's best for our community as a whole.

I think I've told this story before, but I don't care. I'm proud of it, proud of what we did.

I'm thinking about this stuff, about making sound spending and giving choices, because raise-a-reader happened today. All the funds raised in New Brunswick will go into billionaire's kid Jamie Irving's afterschool literacy program for Grade Two students. (Quotes at the bottom.)

Now, I should say right away that I believe the originators of this event, CanWest, actually do raise "money for local literacy programs and increasing awareness about the importance of encouraging family literacy"(Winnipeg - Business Wire).

But not in this town. Here, parents are invisible, and reading starts and ends in schools:

Wendy Papadopoulos, the [Elementary Literacy Friends] program's executive director, said according to an international literacy study more than half of the province's working population does not have the literacy skills to reach their full potential.

She said children acquire basic reading skills between kindergarten and Grade 2 and, from that age, on use their reading skills to learn. If they do not have the literacy skills necessary after Grade 2, she said, they may struggle with learning and self-esteem for the rest of their lives.

That is why Papadopoulos is trying to recruit up to 3,000 volunteers across the province - one for each struggling Grade 2 student. [Telegraph Journal]

Okay, listen, if people are going to do this schooling thing, they might as well do it right, right? It never hurts to fundraise for better schooling (except that it is a kind of collusion with a government that would rather invest money in breweries - but I digress).

And it's none of my business how Mr. Irving funds his projects. I mean, he could just pay more income tax... the whole Irving clan could stop pretending to be residents of Bermuda at tax time... but nevermind all that. I'm being damned snobbish and petty about the whole thing.


Here's the thing that's wearing on me: the promotion and reporting around raise-a-reader refers to the sorry state of adult literacy and the hardships faced, chiefly in adolescence and adulthood, by people who struggle with reading. Yet, the money will go into Grade Two. That won't help with adult literacy any time soon, and adult literacy is what they're talking about.

Just look at this text from the Irving's Times & Transcript:

More than three million Canadians have problems dealing with printed materials such as reading a map or understanding a prescription. According to the International Adult Literacy Survey, low literacy levels are linked to low employment levels and high crime rates.

The statistics are frightening. The offenders in our prisons experience literacy problems at a rate three times higher than the general population. The average education level of new convicts serving two years or more is Grade 7.

People with low literacy skills are about twice as likely to be unemployed for six or more months as those with higher skills. Seniors with low literacy skills are more likely to have health problems than seniors with high literacy skills. Up to 50 per cent of adults with low literacy skills live in low-income households, compared with only eight per cent of those with higher skills.

New Brunswick has one of the highest rates of illiteracy in Canada, with half of all adults struggling enough with reading to affect their lives.

Leave aside the confusion between "illiteracy" (whatever that means) and Grade Seven (which is actually pretty functional). I want to know why they aren't talking about the struggles of Grade Two students, and what a hard year Grade Two is for everyone, and what a crappy job Grade Two teachers have done in the past... er, well, maybe not.

Again, anybody is allowed to promote to any scheme they want. Not everybody has to care about adults or whole families. As someone deeply involved in adult literacy, I can understand the temptation to just write off the "unemployed" and "new convicts", and start all over again with a passel of eager seven-year-olds. Supporting adult literacy learning is weary work.

But even more tiring, for me, is the habit of citing examples of adults who struggle with reading and writing in order to raise funds for programs meant to serve someone else.

Sure, in 10 years, those young kids will be productive adults (maybe, assuming nothing goes wrong in grades three through twelve). But they'll be, what?, 2% or 3% of the population. Unless we have a remarkable die-off of all those sick seniors and convicts and all them other no-good low-literacy adults, Jamie's reading program isn't going to turn things around for about 40 years. That's what a "generational improvement" (link) looks like.

Incidentally - lest someone start throwing stones at my own glass house - this is something that happens often in conversations around adult basic education and GED prep courses. I enjoy helping adults pass the GED tests. I enjoy watching them realize algebra's not so scary and, hey!, they can understand poetry and poetics. But I don't confuse that with adult basic literacy.

I work in both worlds, sometimes on the same day and in the same space. But they are different worlds.

My other big beef with this stuff has to do with the government using up charitable giving. I guess I'm old fashioned, and it's no different from something like the adopt-a-highway program. But with such small amounts available (and given the very real difference in influence and resources) do I really need to compete with my government for funds? How is that best for the community as a whole?

One year, the local NB Community College (a.k.a., the Province of New Brunswick) decided it would be nice to make it easier for some less-well-off students to attend. Did they offer some of their funds to these students? No. Did they waive some of the class or administrative fees? No. What did they do? The government sought - and received - charitable monies which they then gave to the students, who then gave it back to the government (a.k.a. NBCC).

That same year, some nonprofits ran reduced programming because charitable funding was harder to access. Hard because it's hard to compete with the government.

Well... whatcha gonna do?

I concentrate on the adults and families who come to me for help. I see and hear them. I tell them I'll do what I can.

I stay in touch with other friends of adult and whole family literacy.

And I remember the time some people called us up to say, hey, do you want some money? And we said, actually we know somebody who needs it more. And the sun was bright, and the sea sparkled with it, and kids read thousands of books, and their parents read them to sleep.

the sea

In their own words

All funds raised in New Brunswick will go directly to Elementary Literacy Friends, a not-for-profit organization that is recruiting volunteers across the province and training them to tutor Grade 2 students who need one-on-one assistance in order to gain the skills necessary to reach their full potential.

In January, a pilot project is expected begin in about five schools in the province and after that she [Papadopoulos] expects the program to grow to incorporate every anglophone and francophone elementary school in New Brunswick.

"Literacy is critical," said Papadopoulos. "With the changes we face, it is really critical that we continue to focus efforts as early as possible so we can make a generational improvement in literacy over time."

The goal of ELF is to help children between kindergarten and Grade 2 get one-on-one after-school tutoring, because that has been found to be a critical window for gaining the literacy skills needed for learning the rest of their lives.

[In April 2009] New Brunswick Education Minister Kelly Lamrock and Jamie Irving, publisher of the Telegraph-Journal and head of Brunswick News, ...announced the creation of the Elementary Literacy Friends Foundation to engage the literacy issue at its earliest stages.


Brigid said...

Well stated Wendell. I don't know if Tom Sticht follows your blog, but he has often spoke of double duty dollars - investing in adult literacy means investing also in children's literacy. Your analysis of Raise a Reader is well argued. So the program should be clearer about its link to the statistics it quotes and the benefits of children's literacy to the overall rate of adult literacy. Raising a Reader (as in raising our children as readers) is a good thing; but it is not addressing adult literacy issues.

Wendell said...

Thks. Brigid. I was thinking of Tom's stuff when I wrote this.

Something I thought of later was the difference between "generational improvement" (their goal, and the goal of schooling in general) and "inter-generational improvement" (which Tom and Denny and... mostly the rest of us work toward).