Tag Archives: literacy

Reading, writing and relief

On the odd occasion I’ve had the dubious pleasure of speaking to a room full of people who, I am quite certain, would rather tuck into their rubber chicken than spend another moment listening to my reedy voice drone on about the major issues of the day, I’ve been known to resort to rank levity.

Literacy is one of my hobbyhorses, and the joke goes something like this: “People have asked me how I became such an avid reader,” to which I respond, “because there was only so much Gilligan’s Island a young boy could take.” Reactions vary, from polite laughter to uncomprehending stares. What’s Gilligan’s Island? You would know if, like me, you grew up in the late 1960s and had access to a black and white TV set with only two channels on the dial.

There’s a point buried in there somewhere. If you’re exposed to more books and magazines than cheap laughs on ‘the boob tube’, the chances are you’re going to learn to read. What’s more, you’re going to learn to love reading.

Sadly, in New Brunswick and, indeed, across Canada, that’s not always an option. In fact, no issue is more liable to elicit a chorus of unanimity from otherwise divergent political voices than building a literate workforce. Specifically, in this province’s case, upwards of 56 per cent of people can’t read well enough to function competently on a daily basis.

Last summer, the New Brunswick government took delivery of a report entitled, The Power of Literacy – Moving towards New Brunswick’s Comprehensive Literacy Strategy. Some of the recommendations included: “Increasing supports for speech/language development with a primary focus on children up to three years old; empowering families with practical support for stronger literacy skills with their child/youth at each grade; enhancing the capacity of community-based adult learning organizations; and establishing a community literacy champion within each library region to serve as the coordinator of literacy at the community level.”

Still, former provincial New Democrat Leader Dominic Cardy hit the nail on the head when, a couple of years ago, he noted, “If we create a universally accessible, affordable high-quality early childhood education system, linking existing private infrastructure in schools and centres with government-supported ones where necessary, that is going to unleash a huge amount of economic potential.”

The results of one recent study of 693 Ontario kids in Grade One indicated that those who had participated in two years of full-day kindergarten (FDK) in that province were much better equipped to thrive in school than those who had not.

The research, undertaken by Queen’s and McMaster universities concluded, “Overall, students in FDK are better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school. In every area, students improved their readiness for Grade 1 and accelerated their development. Comparisons of children with two years of FDK instruction and children with no FDK instruction showed that FDK reduced risks in social competence development from 10.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent; in language and cognitive development from 15.8 per cent to 4.3 per cent; (and) in communication skills and general knowledge development from 10.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent.”


In recent years, the efficacious effects of early child education on literacy, numeracy and problem-solving has been rigorously studied all over the world. And the findings all lead to the same conclusion: It works.

Can New Brunswick afford a universal, integrated, accessible system of early childhood education in an age of massive, structural public deficits and debt? The real question is: Can it afford not to invest?


Teach them young and well


When former Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick Margaret McCain talks, people tend to listen. And why not?

She was not only the Queen’s representative in this fair province for several years, she is an internationally recognized expert in, and advocate for, early childhood education.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that whenever she swings through these parts, media outlets bend over backwards to lend her their ears.

According to a CBC report last week, Mrs. McCain says, “If the provincial government is serious about fixing its literacy problems it needs to make radical changes that could mean an expansion of public education. (She) said it’s time to adopt the Finnish model and expand public education to include four-year-olds and then three-year-olds. The Finnish model integrates early learning and care within the public system, which McCain said she feels is the best strategy. ‘If we want to reach all children, the public education system is a well-established system where there’s room for extending education downward,’ she said.”

In fact, she added, “You provide equal opportunity for all children. Public education is well-funded, well-structured, well-respected. It’s available, it’s affordable, it’s accessible and most of all there would be consistency of curriculum for all children. . .this is how you give every child an equal opportunity.”

Indeed, there’s little doubt now that around the world, the happiest results correlate with the earliest starts.

A recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report states that in Sweden “The system of pre-school education is outstanding: (a) in its fidelity to societal values and in its attendant commitment to and respect for children; (b) in its systemic approach while respecting programmatic integrity and diversity; and (c) in its respect for teachers, parents, and the public. In each of these categories, the word ‘respect’ appears. There was trust in children and in their abilities, trust in the adults who work with them, trust in decentralised governmental processes, and trust in the state’s commitment to respect the rights of children and to do right by them.”

In Finland, the OECD concludes, “The early childhood education workforce has several strengths, such as a high qualification level of staff with teaching responsibilities, advanced professional development opportunities and favourable working environments. Staff with teaching responsibilities are well educated and trained with high initial qualification requirements. Professional development is mandatory for all staff; and training costs are shared between individual staff members, the government and employers. Working conditions in terms of staff-child ratio are among the best of OECD countries.”

All of which confirms that early childhood education is not the expensive experiment that cynics decry. On the contrary, it is a plausible, workable application for meeting some of our hoariest, long-term social challenges.

The sooner our governments understand that this nation is not, as some political operatives like to assume, a blank canvas for partisan portraiture, the sooner we can get on with investing good money where it belongs: In the future of our kids, who will return dividends that our various adherents of the status quo can’t begin to imagine.

Naturally, as Mrs. McCain states, “There will be some resistance because everybody fears change. And there is a sector of the daycare sector — which is a for-profit. . . If there is an early childhood education sector that wants to remain private then in my vision we have to see them as we do our independent schools. They have to meet certain standards.”

Still, the future of this province’s economic fabric relies on literacy. That’s a project that must begin early in every child’s life.

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The reading solution


The other day, I counted the number of hours I sit in front of Netflix every week, live-streaming old movies. Then, just to ensure that I became genuinely depressed, I tallied the same roll on my iTunes account.

Let me just clarify that I read thousands of words a week from every genre, from every source available. (I also write a few).

My point is I’m not sure when was the last time I read a real, paper-bound book – the type whose spine I sniff to get a real sense of its provenance: from whence it came and how far it has had to travel to my nose.

Was it at least as long as I’ve held Netflix and iTunes accounts?

At the risk of boring those who still read (at least, this column), I profess that I, growing up in rural Nova Scotia and the “big town” of Halifax in the early 1970s, consumed books as if they were candy at Halloween, Christmas and Easter, and any other high holiday in the offing.

I would trundle down to the local purveyor of second-hand folios (of which there were many) and happily plunk down my pennies, dimes and quarters to purchase a well-thumbed, evidently well-loved, copy of “Brave New World” or “1984” or “The Stars My Destination”.

I would grip these works to my adolescent chest, flee home to my sparsely appointed bedroom, and read them ravenously until Morpheus lulled me into a long, happy, dream-filled sleep.

Lately, New Brunswick’s Lieutenant-Governor Jocelyn Roy-Vienneau, issued what the Saint John Telegraph-Journal termed as a “challenge to New Brunswickers aimed at moving the dial on the province’s stubbornly low level of literacy.”

It is a good and noble effort, and perfectly appropriate to their stations in the province’s pantheon of influential people.

But it won’t work – at least, not from her vaunted perch.

Until New Brunswick’s parents, the literate and the illiterate, alike, build a groundswell of support for reading, mathematics, philosophy, and a broad curriculum devoted to critical thinking, nothing will change low rates of literacy – which now hover at between 20 and 60 per cent, depending on the demographic and geographic slice of the population ­– in this province.

The people, who are all of us, must understand that literacy is the road to economic renewal. Knowledge of the world and our place in it is the path to enlightenment, tolerance, and vigorous, durable happiness.

When we reside in the dark, we stay there, munching on our grievances, believing to the depths of our decaying souls what others tell us is true or fine or mundane or simply unachievable.

When, however, we occupy the light, we pursue it, delighting in ideas and opportunities we hadn’t conjured before, inventing new futures for ourselves and our fellows, extending our hands like tethers of hope to our brothers and sisters around the world, building communities.

That’s what literacy does.

Still, the reading solution in New Brunswick will take more than a challenge from privileged readers, such as the province’s L-G to achieve.

It will take a far more concerted public policy effort by this provincial government to convince the people who put power into its parlors where Netflix and iTunes run daily that literacy is not merely a fine idea – it is the only engine of economic development that will return productivity to the private sector, tax revenues to the public sector and opportunity to a province where, once upon a time, all of Canada’s most heroic stories once began.


The fault is not in our “stars”; it’s in ourselves


The mind of a Canadian premier is a terrible thing to waste.

Its life can be as short as four years, but never longer than 12. And during that midge-like span, it must muster all the mental and physical resources – intellectual flexibility, empathy, focus, judgement, courage, energy – necessary to the task of not utterly failing the electorate that enshrined it.

The voters (it goes without saying) expect nothing of their government leaders, if “nothing” means everything.

As balloteers grudgingly mark their election-day cards, they flee back into their workaday lives, sure of the disappointments that are about to mount, insensate to the absurdity of their standards for political representation.

We, the people, demand that our roads be paved, our potholes be filled, our educational facilities be matchless, our health care system be the best in the world. But when a government flies the rare kite, suggesting tentatively that to pay for these things, it might actually have to raise a highway toll, or increase a sales tax, or (gasp!) actually tighten its belt, out come the placards and the picket lines.

It’s worse in the United States, where they, the people, have managed to transform the poor slobs who run for public office into mewling supplicants of populous fashion. That’s the leadership they’ve come to expect; the leadership they ultimately deserve: unfocused, apologetic, tremulous, and, ultimately, ineffective.

Still, there there was a time in this fair land when democratic imperatives intersected neatly with political ambitions. It didn’t last long, but for as long as it did, women got the vote and all Canadians got a minimum standard of universal health care.

Since then, however, women have served in our parliaments and assemblies with decreasing frequency and increasingly shorter duration. Meanwhile, our health care system has devolved into a multi-jurisdictional hodgepodge that serves some people superbly well, but most of us poorly and without even the semblance of discernment.

All of which may only lend credence to the notion that true democracies are extraordinarily fragile, as likely to wither from neglect as crumble from abuse. And those who we authorize to guard them, for however long a period, should be given every opportunity to muster their resources, especially at the beginning of their mandates.

New Brunswick’s incoming Liberal Premier Brian Gallant faces a terrifically challenging four years. And that’s to say nothing of the several hundred wish lists voters and their organizational proxies will dispense with nauseating regularity.

The most monumental of his tasks, however, will not be grappling with one particular issue or another. It will be applying the considerable faculties of his nimble and educated mind to urgent questions of the common good, even as broad swaths of New Brunswickers stubbornly refuse to recognize those matters that constitute their shared cause.

Surely, chief among these must be resuscitating an economy that’s been beached for some time.

Does Mr. Gallant soften his position on hydraulic fracturing in the nascent shale gas industry and clear the way for commercial exploitation of the resource, a move that could one day generate tens-of-millions-of-dollars in taxes and royalties for this fiscally bereft province?

Or does he stick to his guns and slap a moratorium on the controversial practice, as he has vowed to do, until such time as he believes it sufficiently safe and manageable? And then what?

If he is, as he has intimated, the “education premier”, will he make literacy, numeracy and higher learning tools for economic development now and in the future? Does the road to prosperity wind its way through vistas of human capital, as yet unexplored, or the all too familiar terrain of natural resources and the raw labour they require, often only seasonally?

Campaign rhetoric aside, what, in fact, is Mr. Gallant’s endgame for New Brunswick, and will he be permitted to pursue it in relative calm, free of the cacophony the vested, the specially interested, the lightly knowledgeable, and the constitutionally loud-mouthed among us are so good at raising?

Or, perhaps, knowing that there is no time to waste in New Brunswick, he will let none of it stand in his way.

That, in itself, would be an achievement worthy of note.

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Putting the true profit motive back into government


At some point during their long campaign to regain the relevance they once enjoyed in western society, progressive liberals of the social-democratic mien finally wised-up to the fact that filthy lucre, not moral suasion, makes the world go round.

Specifically, unless they can link improvements in living standards, literacy and child care to actual wealth creation, they might as well go home and write folk songs for all the influence they’ll wield.

The money principle has been the genius of the counter-counter-culture that began with the reign of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, continued under the “everything goes” administration of Bill Clinton, persisted during the corporatist eras of the daddy-son Bush tag-team of George and Georgie W. It now languishes in Barack Obama’s uncertain hands. 

The fundamental idea was, and is, that Government is, at best, a necessary evil. Most of the time it’s just evil by nature – wasteful, tyrannical, ineffective. 

The “market” was, and is, mankind’s true salvation. Individuals, properly motivated through low taxation, will solve their own problems.

In this conception of reality, welfare is for weaklings, schools are for learnin’ the three Rs and, higher education is for snooty elites unless it leads to a job at a billion-dollar tech firm in Silicon Valley.

Or, as the late Margaret Thatcher once opined, “We want a society where people are free to make choices, to make mistakes, to be generous and compassionate. This is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the state is responsible for everything, and no one is responsible for the state.”

Lately, though, that notion has been turning on its head.

Andre Picard, the Globe and Mail’s award-winning public health reporter, recently quoted from a study underwritten by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The findings were startling.

“For every $1 spent providing housing and support for a homeless person with sever mental illness, $2.17 in savings are reaped because they spend less time in hospital, in prison and in shelters,” Mr. Picard reported earlier this month.

“People who are severely mentally ill and chronically homeless use a lot of services – an average of $225,000 a year, according to research. Providing housing and support is costly too – an average of $19,582 per person. But the avoided costs are much greater, $42,536 on average, because those who are housed are put in hospital less often, make fewer ER visits and do not use shelters as often. . .For people with less severe mental illness and lesser needs, 96 cents is saves for every additional $1 spent on housing.”

The results suggest that, contrary to the opinions of nanny-state decriers, Government’s obligations to provide safe, reliable housing to the erstwhile homeless is not only moral – it’s also financial, as the investment yields an enviable return for all taxpayers.

Apparently, that’s something even a Harperite can get behind. 

“We can do more – not just manage homelessness, but eliminate it altogether,” Candice Bergen, federal minister of social development, said at the study’s unveiling in Ottawa on April 8. “I’m realistic. I know there will always be people who will be homeless and who will need help. But most people can recover, they can get back on their feet.”

Lately, the same line of reasoning has been leaking from commentaries by the unlikeliest sources: economists. 

When TD Bank Group’s Craig Alexander is not talking about the dollars-and-cents benefits of structured, universally accessible early childhood education, he’s pointing out the enormous costs to society of structural, endemic illiteracy.

Halting it, he recently told a business crowd in Saint John, “raises your income, which ends up creating a better standard of living. You invest in people. You improve their skills. You give them the ability to be much more productive. It’s good for business.”

It’s also good for the state – which, for all practical purposes, means all of us.



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Training the literate mind: the younger the better


As two New Brunswick political leaders duke it out over the wisdom of a school policy that neither seems to fully comprehend, at least one educator is fixing her gaze on the only issue that truly matters in the pedagogical careers of this province’s young and malleable: Literacy or, more precisely, the lack of it.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy threw down the gauntlet last week when he blamed low proficiency rates of reading and writing in New Brunswick on the provincial system of fast-forwarding effectively failed students through high school graduation and into colleges and universities.

Vowing to change this perfidious policy in the unlikely event that he should one day form a government, he declared at an editorial board meeting of Brunswick News, “If you’re a good teacher you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that your kids are doing well and you are going to pass them on to the next level.

“But if you’re not as good or the kid is that much more difficult, it takes a lot of the incentives out of the system if there is no social consequence for the child not doing well and there is no professional reason for the teacher to work harder,” adding, “You can’t fail right now.”

To which the Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward predictably harumphed in disdain to reporters: “There is no ‘no-failure policy’ in New Brunswick,’ . . .there are children who do, for various reasons, spend more than one year in a grade level  – that is done in a collaborative process in co-operation with parents, with a teacher, to identify what’s best for the child.”

Indeed, he boasted, “We have an inclusive education system in our province, which we are leaders globally in helping ensure that every child is able to meet their fullest potential.”

That, of course, is solely a matter of opinion as there is nothing empirically testable about the claim.

On the other hand, Mr. Cardy’s approach – holding kids back a grade or two until they learn how to read in a system that couldn’t manage to teach them the first time around – seems almost mad.

Meanwhile, Marilyn Luscombe, president of New Brunswick Community College wisely avoids the blame-game altogether and suggests that low literacy is a far more complex problem than the province’s politicos – who adore their policy footballs – care to concede. “We have to come together in New Brunswick in partnership with the secondary system and with community literacy organizations,” she told the Telegraph-Journal recently.

“(We have to) figure out more clearly who does what and how we can ensure that more people enter the post-secondary education system and have the skills to be successful. It’s much more than the no-fail policy. It’s a lot of elements.”

In fact, teaching kids how to read is not essentially the function of primary – certainly not secondary – school educators. Expecting them to take the lead misses the point of graduated learning and baldly ignores every gradient in human development.

Learning first words, and learning them well, happens in early childhood education programs, pre-school and, ultimately, the home, where mum and dad and older brother and sister help junior practice until perfect. That’s because nature has programmed our species to learn best before age five. These are the optimal years for acquiring languages, developing math skills and recognizing spatial relationships.

It stands to reason that if we want literate, critical, thinkers populating our universities and trade schools, we should spend most of our energies and resources on the early years.

Of course, one point on which all – feuding politicians and bemused educators, alike – can agree: Low literacy costs society in material and tangible ways. It taps the social welfare system, and drives up poverty and homelessness rates. Some studies have even suggested that it increases the incidence of crime, mental illness and drug addiction.

Is there, then, much sense in jawboning about rickety middle and high school matriculation policies – which don’t make an iota of difference to the structurally illiterate and innumerate – that distract us from the issue that truly matters?

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When Johnny can’t read, we all suffer


Some in New Brunswick (mostly politicians) will characterize rising or stable grade school enrolments in the province’s urban south in the vaguely encouraging ways one does when happy appearances mask troubling truths.

Is it heartening that, in a jurisdiction where outmigration among the young threatens to rend the social and economic fabric, classroom head counts are up, especially in the Francophone system?

Do we care that they come at the expense of the rural north, where communities are steadily emptying? At least, the number of bums in seats from Moncton to Fredericton to Saint John, is increasing. That ought to count for something. Oughtn’t it?

Of course, apart from this statistical shuffling of human capital from one region of the province to the other, what matters most is the education of these fresh-faced scholars during their academic sojourn. And in this regard, alone, no one in New Brunswick has cause for any degree of sanguinity.

The news from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) most recent study on literacy, numeracy and skills is in. And, for New Brunswick, the news is not good. In fact, it’s plain awful.

Though Canada, overall, scored just above the OECD mean for 22 countries in reading ability (and just below in problem solving), New Brunswick ranked below in both categories. What’s more, the think tank observes a widening gap between those who can and those who cannot read in this country:

“Canada has a higher proportion of its population at the highest and lowest levels in literacy. Fourteen percent of Canadians score at Level 4 or 5, meaning that they can undertake tasks that involve integrating information across multiple dense texts and reasoning by inference. This places Canada above the OECD average of 12 per cent, along with Japan (23 per cent), Finland (22 per cent), the Netherlands (19 per cent), Australia (17 per cent), and Sweden (16 per cent).

“At the other end of the scale, 17 per cent of Canadians score at Level 1 or below. Of these, 13 per cent score at Level 1: These individuals have skills that enable them to undertake tasks of limited complexity, such as locating single pieces of information in short texts in the absence of other distracting information. The remaining 4 per cent, categorized as ‘below Level 1,’ do not command these skills. They demonstrate only basic vocabulary, as well as the ability to read brief texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of specific information. The OECD average for Level 1 or below is 15 per cent.”

As New Brunswick hovers near the bottom of the Canadian results, the literacy gap in this province is, presumably, more pronounced than in many other parts of the country.

All of which has rung the alarm bell for educators and literacy workers here.

“We continue to have over 50 per cent of the New Brunswick population below a Level 3 literacy level, which we consider to be a high school equivalency,” the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick’s Natasha Bozek told the Telegraph-Journal on Tuesday.

Added Patrick Lacroix of Elementary Literacy Inc. in the same article, “There is a huge amount of work ahead of us. Yes, the schools are making a lot of effort focused on literacy. But it takes the community to stress the importance of tackling the problem and to get as many people as possible involved in this movement for change.”

He’s right. The figurative village that raises the child must also teach him how to read and do math both in and out of the classroom. This requires a cultural shift in attitudes about learning – a basic acknowledgement that these hard skills are simply and permanently fundamental to a prosperous economy and effective labour force.

Is it a coincidence that nations, such as Japan and Finland, which boast comparatively high literacy and numeracy rates are also among the world’s most innovative (if not always the most economically robust).

In the end, it’s not the number of heads in New Brunswick schools that matter.

It’s what’s in them.

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