Literacy — the essential skill

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Caroline Vaughan

By Caroline Vaughan

Newfoundland and Labrador has literacy challenge that goes well beyond the numbers. The fact is that one of every two adults in our province does not meet the desired proficiency level in either language or numeracy skill. But our challenge goes past the numbers, to our understanding of literacy itself. Most of us understand literacy as something which you either have or you do not have - either you are literate, or you are not. This is quite simply not true.

Each of us possess some level of literacy skill - and most of us fall within the range of the very low to the highly accomplished. Increased literacy proficiency along this range connects individuals with better outcomes in school, employment, income and opportunity. And like other skills, it is developed and enhanced with practice.

Starting at birth, and continuing on throughout one's life, you can either build your literacy skill, or you can let this skill lapse. In the same way that you learn to ride a bicycle, if you exercise your literacy skill, you will master not only the basics but grow more proficient over time. And just as easily, you will gradually erode those skills if you don't keep getting on that bicycle, or reading that next book.

September is the month where many of us turn to school, books and learning. It is also a month for challenging us to greater literacy gains. September encompasses within it International Literacy Day, Learn at Work Week, and Essential Skills Day - dates which all point toward the need for a greater understanding of the value and impact of literacy in our homes, in our businesses, and in our communities.

There are tremendous gains to be made from improved literacy skills. Stronger literacy skills for our youth increase the chances that they will complete high school and go on to postsecondary learning. Increased skill levels for adults increase the probability that they will succeed in finding employment, and will experience shorter periods of unemployment should they find themselves out of work. Elevated literacy skills also contribute to other sectors - more civic engagement, better health outcomes, and greater connection to family and community.

There are economic gains to be measured as well. Among our Aboriginal and immigrant population, high levels of first-language literacy skill directly support gains in Canada's official languages, thereby allowing greater participation in the economy and society. Increased skill in the workplace provides business with a more innovative, flexible and robust workforce, enabling increased productivity while providing employees with opportunities for advancement.

Moving literacy forward is an issue for each of us to take to heart as individuals, as students, as parents, and as civic leaders. Our challenge is to come to an appreciation of how deeply literacy affects us, and then to consider how we might best benefit — by picking up that book, or by channelling our energy to make a difference for others.

Submitted by Caroline Vaughan, executive director for Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador. She can be reached at the following email: On the Web, visit:

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

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