Literacy is finally being addressed -

Literacy is finally being addressed

More than frustrating profs, literacy rates affect some students’ ability to graduate


Colleges in Ontario are finally taking literacy seriously. Far from simply complaining that some students are entering college and university with low writing and reading skills, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario teamed up with Fanshawe College to see how this was impacting students.

Some students, they found, are “at risk of not completing their programs, due to deficits in language proficiency.”

In a knowledge-based, increasingly technically-oriented job market, these students aren’t completing their education not because they lack the intelligence, but because they lack the language skills of their peers.

And it’s not an uncommon problem. According to research by Canada’s National Adult Literacy Database, more than one in five Canadians has very low literacy skills. These people, though, are most likely to be older than 55 years or don’t speak French or English as their first language.

From a post-secondary education perspective, that largely means second career students and international students are most likely to see English literacy as their primary barrier to education.

“College-level [literacy] includes the ability to communicate in a clear, organized manner and with supporting evidence and examples,” study co-author Roger Fisher told Interrobang.

But depending on where these students go to school, the level of support varies widely. The HEQCO report states:

“Twenty-nine per cent of colleges relied solely on support services such as learning centres; 25 per cent on for-credit remedial, upgrading or foundations “transcript” courses that do not count toward program completion; 29 per cent on for-credit modified communications courses that do count toward degree completion; and 17 per cent relied on a combination of transcript and modified courses.”

HEQCO should be commended for their conclusions, which call for “a consistent approach to address the language needs of all students enrolled in Ontario’s colleges.”

That consistent approach, they suggest, is a mandatory literacy test to all incoming students. The bottom 10-15 per cent would be asked to take remedial classes to help them catch up to their peers. The tests would have no bearing on overall admittance, since they would be administered only after the students had been offered a position at the college.

These remedial classes, though, would ideally serve to put everyone on the same footing before anyone loses their balance. It’s a noble effort, and colleges across Ontario should be clamoring to take part in the growing program.

“As a follow-up to this project, HEQCO has recently commissioned a group of five Ontario colleges, led by Mohawk College, to evaluate whether their remedial courses improve the development of language skills and overall student outcomes,” the study concluded.

Those five should be applauded for their efforts to help students in every way possible.


Literacy is finally being addressed

  1. In this article, there is a reference to the National Adult Literacy Database (NALD). In the 4th paragraph, it says: ”According to research by Canada’s National Adult Literacy Database, more than one in five Canadians has very low literacy skills.” It points to a paper that we have online in our digital Library – see the following.

    Sussman, S. B. (2003). Moving the markers: New perspectives on adult literacy rates in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Movement for Canadian Literacy.

    Actually NALD did not do the research on this, nor did we write it, but Susan Sussman did, and she was contracted by Movement for Canadian Literacy (MCL). However, NALD is a repository of online documents. It constitutes a wealth of resources in the adult literacy and essential skills fields:

    Just thought you’d want to know, so there are no copyright issues with the author herself.


    Lorette Melanson
    Gestionnaire, Recherche et Communications
    Manager, Research and Communications
    Base de données en alphabétisation des adultes (BDAA)
    National Adult Literacy Database (NALD)
    Maison Sterling House
    767 rue Brunswick Street
    Fredericton, NB E3B 1H8
    Tel. (506) 457-6844
    Fax (506) 457-6910
    Courriel/Email : /

  2. I’m not sure and have not done a lot of research about this, but I think that there is a relation between the fact that many people in university right now are immigrants to Canada. At SFU and UBC alone, well over half of the student population is Asian.

    As a literacy teacher, working with both ESL and English native speakers, time and time again, I come across the need to focus on literacy (spelling rules, vowel and consonant patterns, word forming with prefix/root/suffix identification, etc.). In fact, when I started teaching upper level ESL students, and found that they were almost illiterate in some senses (they cannot spell a simple word such as pip, and instead rely on memorization of commonly used words) it made me really question what other ESL teachers/schools are focusing on.

    When looking at the BC curriculum (, which is probably very similar to the Ontario one, we see that the literacy skills are taught only in elementary school. By grade 7 it is finished. Unfortunately, in an immigrant-rich country such as Canada, many people come here later and miss those opportunities to learn basic reading and writing skills.

    I applaud Ontario’s effort and hope that we will do something similar in BC.

  3. I am happy to see that the research I did in 2003 is having an impact on how literacy issues are understood in 2010. Thank you, Lorette Melanson, for correcting the record by acknowledging my authorship of “Moving the Markers”.