I work in literacy



It's been a happy International literacy Day thus far. The last time I looked, the media, and their friends in business and government, were still ignoring us.

About 8 this morning, Atlantic time, I checked the websites of the Guardian and the Independent, both newspapers in the UK, and found no literacy stories (Note: something would appear in the Guardian 6 hours later). Nothing showed up on the Scotsman or at the Irish Times. Coming west, I checked my local CBC website, and then I looked at the website for the Toronto Star and the Ottawa Citizen. So far so good. I looked at two papers in Australia - The Australian and The Age - as well as The Hindu. Nothing. I checked in with the Real News Network, with Straight.com and with Aljazeera. Good, good. Ditto South Africa's Mail & Guardian online And, I looked at my twitter feed.

And there was the only cloud on the horizon. CBC Edmonton's morning radio show, Edmonton AM, was doing a spot on literacy.

I checked in a couple of hours later, and caught them hauling out all the familiar chestnuts of misunderstanding, exaggeration and over-simplification.

For example, they explained the new "broadened" definition of literacy, by which they meant the narrowing of literacy to workplace essential skills or on-the-job literacy. They ignored family literacy and this year's theme, the link between literacy and peace; literacy and political justice was completely overlooked. (On the positive side, they didn't try to call smarter investing "financial literacy".)

Next, they blithely described as "literacy problems" both the situation where someone is promoted into a job without adequate training ("you know, where someone gets promoted and promoted and promoted and then they can't..."), and the situation of ESL learners, as though I were made less literate when my neighbour added a Persian script to the signage in his store.

They convoluted remediation and compensation when they explained the value of workplace literacy by giving an example of a company that has replaced print with icons or images to accommodate non-readers.

They trotted out decade old stats (40% of adult Albertans functionally illiterate) as though Alberta's excellent adult and family literacy workers hadn't accomplished much of anything in 10 years. They also made the magical claim, based on "talking to academics and economists" (i.e., someone who read OECD literature from the late 1990s), that if only 1% of adult Albertans (about 25,000 people) would improve their literacy enough to, say, pass the GED, the province would produce and sell an added $3,000,000,000 worth of products and services.

Finally, they looked forward to a noontime event where another book in the Good Reads series was being launched. Unfortunately, they managed to call these "books for adults learning to read" which pretty much describes Alberta's excellent Grass Roots Press Readers, but not the reading level 5, 6, and 7 Good Read books. Hopefully, at lunchtime, someone will be able to correct them or take their mics away or something.

Still in all, I'm hopeful. Another year like this - another year of widespread media silence - and we may have a chance to rebuild the public understanding of our field: what we do; who we serve; what our service looks like; why it's important; the many ways people can help.

One day, we might even have the chance to say something like this:
"My name is Wendell, and I work in literacy, which means I help people - children and adults - learn to read and write and do some basic math.

"I also help people with other kinds of learning. I help them learn about computers. I help them learn about things they need to do to get or keep a job. I help them prepare for tests like a driver's test or the GED. I help them learn more about their children and ways they can support their children's learning. I'm involved with many kinds of adult and family learning.

"But today, on International Literacy Day, I want to talk about my literacy work - my work with people who can read only a little, or not at all, and who want to change that."

One day. But not yet. Not today.

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