Literacy is a basic skill that many of us often take for granted, so it might come as a surprise that one in four adults in Waterloo-Wellington ages 16 and up fall into the lowest level of literacy.
It’s a problem consistent throughout the country: one in four adults can’t read dosage directions on medication or correctly fill out medical forms or job applications, and almost half of the population lacks the literacy skills they need to get and keep a living wage job.
Since 1988, the Project READ Literacy Network has been tirelessly advocating for basic literacy education for adults, trying to find and fill those skill gaps in Waterloo Region and Guelph-Wellington.
The nonprofit runs a family literacy program, as well as family literacy certification -- but mostly they work as a network to support existing programs through things like educational assessments and orchestrating monthly meetings for literacy service planning, which helps them to identify gaps and look at the trends to develop programming.
“I started in the adult literacy field 30 years ago as a volunteer,” said Jane Tuer, the executive director of Project READ. “And I just fell in love with this whole concept, mostly, because of the shocking statistics. I had no idea that so many people had difficulties with reading and writing.”
But literacy is not just about reading and writing: it includes math, digital literacy, and communication skills needed to participate in the world around them, and that’s where their programming comes in.
In the 2019/2020 fiscal year, they had 1,331 adults enrolled in their network of programs within the region. Success is measured by milestones the students complete, and according to Tuer, more than 80 per cent of students had successfully completed enough milestones to move on, showing increases in their literacy.
Improving literacy skills can help them get better education, better jobs, and just function better in society on a day-to-day basis.
In the 2019/2020 year, more than 22 per cent of the people in their programs didn’t have any source of income, and more than half were below the poverty line.
“These people have so much potential that is not tapped into. We also know that many of them do have learning disabilities. And if that's the case, that learning disability is not indicative of somebody's intellectual level. Most people with disabilities and even with autism are at a higher functioning level than many of us. They're really intelligent people. It's just finding the way that works. And that's what our programs do. We work to find the way that they learn best,” she said.
In fact, Tuer said that according to Craig Alexander, chief economist at Deloitte Canada, “a one per cent increase in literacy skills will create a 3 per cent increase in the GDP, which is equal to $54 billion per year to our economy.”
Tuer also pointed to the correlation between low literacy levels and crime rates. Nearly 80 per cent of people entering Canadian prisons don’t have their high school diplomas.
“Many of them don't even have their Grade 8. If you don't think that crime is completely correlated to literacy, if you don't think [literacy] affects you, think about that the next time your house or your car is broken into, because I'm going to pretty well guarantee you that the majority of people doing those things do not have the literacy skills they need.”
Their own programming, the Get Set Learn Family Literacy Peer Program typically takes on two or three groups of 10 families for their eight-week sessions.
“We are focused as an adult literacy program, because the school system covers children to the age of 18. So we take 19 and older,” she said. “Our only foray into children is our family literacy program, where we do focus on the adults as well.”
While there are many different reasons people could have literacy issues, from learning disabilities to moving around a lot as a child, Tuer says they believe a parent is a child’s first and most important teacher, which is why they emphasize family learning.
“And I think that's what makes us unique to most things. Many times people are working directly with just the children, the groups, we work with the parents and the children together. And this way we're helping parents to recognize, maybe they have some skill gaps, or they really just don't know how to help their child in school, or help them get ready for school,” she said.
The free program, which recently won an adult literacy honour award from ABC Life Literacy Canada for its innovation, consists of two hour sessions.
The first hour begins with parent-child time, where the parents and children all learn something together, like teaching a craft to their child or doing a group activity. In the second hour, children go with an early childhood educator, and their instructors work separately with the parents.
“And that's where they can discuss things like healthy discipline, like what is healthy discipline? What is a good way to discipline a child without harming a child, or what is a good way to learn more about nutrition?”
She says they combine skills in each session so it doesn’t feel as much like learning a literacy skill as it does learning something tangible, like how to help their children better at school.
“But we are teaching literacy while we're doing that,” she said.
To find out more the Project READ network, visit their website.