Adult Literacy in Canada, 2000 - 2010

Hey you. It's almost suppertime and the close of 2010. I'm midway through the Christmas layoff - doing only volunteer literacy work, and not much of that. What are you doing?

Listen. It's been a decade since a committee reported to parliament that 1) we knew how to meet the nation's adult literacy challenges, and 2) hitherto we lacked the political will to put that knowledge to use.

So, I was thinking, what's the decade been like?

What went right?
In many ways, it was a privileged decade. The economic hardship much of the country is now experiencing is only a couple years old. For most of the past ten years, Canada saw increased employment and investment. This meant there were discretionary dollars to put into programs and resources, as well as the increased likelihood of employment for those learners who had that goal.

There was also a flowering of adult literacy resources; from early easy-reads from PRACE and Grass Roots Press through to the Quick Read - Rapid Read - Good Read type novellas. The Terry Barber biographies were written and published, as were Judy Murphy's health books. In 2000, Pat Campbell's team gave us our own assessment tool: the CARA or Canadian Adult Reading Assessment. But an even more valuable tool was her 2002 Teaching Reading to Adults: A Balanced Approach which sometimes comes with video. (Just this fall I was able to sit in on a refresher workshop using this material, and found it still very useful.) We also saw the maturing of web 2.0 and all that implied for learning, sharing and distance support. I'm thinking of things like AlphaRoute or similarly accessible online resources and tools.

Still, I'm not sure how well the decade lived up to its promise. Looking back, three things stand out for me.

How did we define "Literacy"?
One is the public shift in perception about what "literacy work" means. Once, it meant helping people - adults, children, families - get better at whatever reading and writing they valued. You can still see this thinking in the 2003 introductory edition of Literacies.

I should say that the plural - literacies, not literacy - bothered me for a long time. Partly, it bothered me because I was introduced to literacy work by people who took for granted that literacy was something distinct from the imposed and curriculum-based reading and writing instruction we called schooling, and that the same literacy skills might look superficially different in different contexts. Partly, it was because I'm a white Anglo-Saxon protestant male with a WASP's discomfort with innovative noun forms. Partly, it was because I thought any cause which had to compete for funding and public support was foolhardy to not circumscribe it's own boundaries.

Gradually, I came to see that a lot of my colleagues were using the plural literacies to reinforce the argument for locally appropriate, individualized, learner-centered services and to undermine attempts to impose an one-size-fits-all literacy curriculum. But my last worry wasn't wrong. In the second half of the decade, literacy was reduced to how well adults and children did on particular set of tests, or how prepared they were for temporary, highly-demanding job placements. Because different age groups needed different tests, the literacy field fragmented between early childhood education (consistently misnamed "family literacy"), school-based literacy, and adult GED-prep classes. Somewhere along the way, the gates were opened and employers were invited to tell us what kind of reading and writing they valued, leading to "Workplace Essential Skills" gaining a special priority in what used to be the adult literacy field. The impact of WES thinking can be seen in the definition of literacy Café readers settled on in 2008: "A person is literate who can with understanding read, write, calculate, sign, solve problems and communicate with symbols to meet the needs, demands and desires of his/her everyday life."

The verbs read, write, and communicate with symbols are old hat, of course. Sign is an interesting addition. I assume it means "use sign language" and not "sign one's name" - but in either case it suggests the difficulties raised by trying to be inclusive. Am I less literate because I can't sign? Am I less literate because I can't read or write French or Chinese? Calculate is another interesting verb choice: were they thinking "read and manipulate numbers with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division" or something else? And, again, would I be less literate if I still found the 7 times table hard to memorize?

But the real odd duck in the list is solve problems. Nowhere does the CARA measure problem solving. Nor, I thought, were we still stuck with the misconception that adults with weak literacy skills also had poor cognitive or reasoning skills. In fact, I thought we had pretty much agreed that most adults with weak literacy skills were excellent at solving problems - especially the problem of getting things done without revealing to the world an inability to read!

Still, the skills language prevailed. The National Literacy Secretariat (NLS) was reinvented as the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES). In the eastern half of the country at least, anyone not claiming to be instructing adults in Workplace Essential Skills - or Essential Skills, as they are sometimes called, as though what's good for General Motors is by definition good for everyone - lost access to federal dollars, and was reduced to whatever funding they could charm out of Rotary Clubs and city councils.

Meantime, a great deal of literacy work simply disappeared; either dried up altogether, or evaporated down into isolated pools of small scale, unresourced volunteer work.

Who should be doing "literacy" work (and what work needs doing)?
The second thing that stands out for me is that, despite the drying up of funded literacy work, there was a deluge of concern about literacy. The public conversation about Canada's literacy crisis reached a crescendo. We heard, over and over again, that nearly half the country was functionally illiterate. Here in New Brunswick, we heard it was more than half. A former ten-year premier, Frank McKenna, whose government won the 1995 UNESCO International Literacy Prize for instituting a province-wide adult literacy program, spent the second half of the 2000's giving TD Bank sponsored speeches on how New Brunswick had to get its literacy act together - without a single blush or backward glance.

We also saw an unseemly contest between large organizations wanting to position themselves as the go-to guys for literacy advice and funding in Canada. So, for example, ABC Canada Literacy Foundation changed its name to ABC Life Literacy Canada and "developed a new vision, mission and brand." What's this Life Literacy? They say:

It’s the literacy skills you need to live your life and the new skills you need to acquire throughout your life. Workplace, family and community are important areas in your life where developing your reading, writing and math skills can result in a more productive and more successful life experience.
(Seriously. They really did tell us what areas are to be important in our lives, and direct us to become more productive and successful. Thanks. Thanks for that. Nice brand. Looks good on you.)

ABC Canada also reminded us that National Family Literacy Day was a registered trademark. (Before the decade was out, they would throw a propitiatory arm around the whole month of September.) The CLC and the LLC - or maybe it's the CLL - each spent several happy years and millions of dollars republishing other people's studies, reports and op-ed pieces, all without actually improving the lot of literacy workers and learners on the ground. (I imagine they would dispute this, but this is my experience, and I'm a literacy worker, I know a bunch of literacy workers, and I know a whole lot of literacy learners.) Oh, and the Movement for Canadian Literacy amalgamated with one of them - I forget which, but I figure if it matters to you, then you probably already know.

Meantime, our provincial and federal governments designated more and more dollars for literacy - or what was now counting as literacy. In fact, in the first part of the decade, the federal government put up more money than it was able to spend. Or maybe they were just lying. You know, promising funds, but then disqualifying applicants who chose the wrong guy for their MP. You decide.

Is there still a (reading-writing) literacy field?
The third thing that stands out for me is the emergence and then disappearance of a different kind of trans-Canada conversation. I'm thinking here of the Literacies Journal - a world class journal of research and reflection that invited and nurtured a conversation between adult literacy workers. There was also the RiP or Research in Practice initiative that came out of the west - at least, it seemed considerably west of here - and prodded field workers to write down (or draw or quilt or sculpt) their reflections and share them with each other. There were probably others - Jan Greer tried hard to make something like this happen in New Brunswick - that started or didn't start and then ended or stayed too local to show up in national venues.

I don't know how successful these efforts were on their own terms. This last thing is hard for me. I might be getting it wrong. I felt befriended by Tracey and Maria and Nancy and Peter and others - you know who you are. It's easy for me to assume that what helped me was equally helpful for others. Maybe other literacy workers aren't ending the decade with the same sense of missing friends and missing handrails. In any case, I'm still thinking about the structural and economic barriers that limited their reach. What I feel sure about is that, unlike the ABC, CCL, LLC, WTF banner wavers, there were people who were serious about meeting literacy workers where they were at, and then helping them speak for themselves.

So what's the balance then?
I don't know. Literacy has certainly found a higher profile - even if I struggle to recognize it at times. Literacy spending may be falling, but I'm sure it is still well above where it was in 2000. Certainly that's true of New Brunswick. There are also, here in NB, many more professionals paid to address literacy and literacy-related issues.

But as the scope of the word "literacy" has grown and spread, an odd emptiness has appeared in the heart of it.

In 2000, they wrote, "Experience suggests how to design and deliver quality adult literacy programs...." Then, one day in 2010, a young mom told me she couldn't read very well, and she wanted someone to help her in the daytime. She wanted someone to read aloud with her, so that she could learn to read stories to her child. And I was left to help her get on a list of people waiting to be connected to a volunteer.

Why? Because, in 2010, in New Brunswick, no one gets paid to offer that kind of adult literacy support - to do what we used to call "literacy work."

Isn't that strange?

Happy New Years. :/

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