the Institute for Cross-cultural Exchangethe Institute for Cross-cultural Exchange

Canada’s Literacy Crisis

If Canadians found it important enough to stock their homes with books, more of their children would soar in school, and in life, too.
—Globe and Mail, December 31, 2004

The ability to read is a prerequisite for success in many areas of life. Being able to read spells the difference between success and failure, not only in today’s high-tech and highly competitive workplace, but in countless daily activities such as shopping, driving and taking or administering medications.

The Canadian Government promotes literacy for health, well-being and economic prosperity. A 2004 study showed that a 1% increase in average literacy rates would yield a 1.5% permanent increase in GDP.

Unfortunately illiteracy is tragically widespread in Canada, especially among the economically disadvantaged.

Over 1,000,000 Canadian children, or nearly one child in six, live in poverty.

  • 42% of Canadians between 16 and 65 have not reached the level of literacy considered necessary to thrive in modern society.*
  • 15% of Canadians function at the lowest literacy level.*

* These statistics have not improved in the last decade.

Family Literacy and Poverty

Woman and child reading book together

Early literacy skills are the foundation for future learning. The time from birth through age 8 is the most critical for children in acquiring the “building blocks” of literacy. Such early experiences help to determine brain structure which in turn shapes the way we learn, think, behave and respond to challenges for the rest of our lives.

An alarming number of Canadian children from low-income families enter school without the foundation they need to succeed. They come with far fewer vocabulary, literacy, math, and social skills than their middle-class peers. Gaps in their abilities due to socioeconomic factors, present at 5 years of age in kindergarten remain as children grow older.

Children from low-income families start school a step behind and never catch up.

  • Canadian children who have never been poor outperform disadvantaged children by sizeable margins in reading, writing, science and math.
  • The school drop out rate for Canadian children of low-income families is twice that of their middle-class peers.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Education, 61% of low-income families have no books in their homes for their children.** Lack of access to books is recognized as a significant cause of illiteracy in children.
  • Research continues to show that more often than not, children of functionally illiterate adults share the legacy of their parents’ educational, economic, and social limitations. 

** Similar Canadian figures are unavailable.

Responding to the Crisis

One of the most effective ways to increase literacy is to ensure that there are books in the homes of children.

  • If Canadians found it important enough to stock their homes with books, more of their children would soar in school, and in life, too.
    —Globe and Mail, December 31, 2004
  • Providing books to children is a simple, effective, and inexpensive way to promote literacy.
    —Literacy Promotion in Pediatrics, High & LaGasse, 1999
  • Among family characteristics, the socio-economic background of the family and the number of books in the home were factors influencing reading achievement.
    OECD Program for International Student Assessment: PISA 2000