The Bridge from Misery to Hope: The Fundamental Importance of Literacy
"Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential."
- Former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, speaking on International Literacy Day, 1997
It might come as a surprise that in a country with as much hope and promise as Canada, a recent survey showed that 40% of Canadian working-aged adults have literacy skills below the minimum level required for technical skills and knowledge to be applied in novel situations.
Literacy is often thought of in its most simplistic sense - the ability to read and write. Literacy is so much more than that. Literacy also involves the ability to understand, analyse, use and engage with information; literacy allows us to fulfill our academic, economic, health, and civic potential. Increasing the level of literacy in Canada by even 1% would, over time, lead to a 3% increase in GDP, or $54 billion per year, every year.
There are few things that, if promoted and protected, can have such a positive and broad-reaching impact on society.
Let’s take health as an example. The current COVID guidelines can be - even for those with high literacy skills - confusing, complex and convoluted. Now imagine you are one of the 17% of Canadians that fall in the lowest level of literacy, meaning you are unable to read a short text to find one piece of information. It is going to make it that much more difficult for our fellow citizens, our neighbours, our friends and family who fall into this category to follow the public health guidelines. Increasing levels of literacy is not only beneficial to an individual’s life, but also to a community’s well-being.
Investing in literacy programmes is also sustainable and transformative. Sustainable because literacy is not something that can be taken away from you; it can be improved, practiced, and grown, but not removed. Transformative because increasing literacy skills has a ripple effect across a person’s life, and that of their families and community. If you are still on the fence about the importance of investing in literacy programmes, think about this for a moment: a mother’s reading level is the highest predictor of their child’s future academic success, outweighing factors such as family or neighborhood income. Literacy - and particularly women’s literacy - is a salve to the socio-economic challenges that might otherwise correlate to curtailed academic potential.
The Leacock Foundation has been working with marginalised communities in Toronto and South Africa since 1992. We believe that every child has the opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential, and at the core of that are our signature literacy and leadership programmes. Working in close partnership with schools, teachers, parents and communities, we identify the greatest needs that are being faced by students from SK to Grade 4, and we develop iterative and interactive literacy curricula that we offer after-school, on weekends, and during summer. We believe that by investing early and in a way that complements, augments and supports what is taking place in the classroom and the community, we are able to have the greatest impact.
For more information, please email us on firstname.lastname@example.org and follow us on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn.
Julia Bishop is the Executive Director of the Leacock Foundation.
 Canada West Foundation, Canada’s Basic Skills Shortfall (2018).  ABC Life Literacy Canada, Literacy at a Glance, https://abclifeliteracy.ca/literacy-at-a-glance/.  Ibid.  OECD, Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 2013.  National Institute of Health, https://www.nichd.nih.gov/newsroom/releases/102510-reading-family-income (2010).