Can literacy lift children out of poverty?

Illiteracy is associated with developing countries, but it’s an issue right here in Canada—often linked to the intergenerational cycle of poverty that affects children long before they enter the school system.

Four out of 10 Canadian adults have literacy skills “too low to be fully competent in most jobs in our modern economy,” according to The Conference Board of Canada. And the reports that only 47 per cent of students from the lowest income bracket (families earning less than $30,000 per year) met the provincial standard for reading.

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“At a national level, in comparison to other countries, Canada is doing very well, but when you boil that down to a community level, there are communities in Ontario that are really struggling,” said Camesha Cox, managing director of The Reading Partnership. “At the top of the list are Black and Indigenous children and youth.”

Cox founded The Reading Partnership eight years ago, after returning from a teaching job in the U.K., where she developed a program to help high-school students who were reading at a primary-school level (or not at all).

“I thought, first of all, how does a person get to Grade 7 without literacy skills?” said Cox. So, when she returned to Toronto, she further developed the program to work with both children and parents, starting when the children were still young (ages four to six). For those who don’t read at the provincial level by the age of eight, she said, the likelihood they’ll continue to struggle through school and later in life increases.

Tax dollars are poured into the educational system, says Cox, yet it’s still failing many children. It’s not because these children have learning disabilities, adds Cox, but rather that they may have gaps in their education.

In a low-income home, for example, children might not have access to reading materials, or they may attend under-resourced daycares or schools. Single parents or those with precarious employment may be working multiple jobs and have less time to spend with their children at home.

“There is no system or protocol in place to ensure that those learning gaps are addressed and you’re caught up,” said Cox. That’s where community-based literacy interventions come in.

A key component to making this work, however, is involving parents, which is why The Reading Partnership also teaches parents how to teach their children to read. The program has worked with hundreds of families in the Toronto neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). In 12 weeks, children progress from not knowing their letter sounds to the ability to read and respond to comprehensive questions.

Cox specifically chose KGO as a starting point for the program. “When you see the food bank lines, even in the dead of winter, the line is long and it extends outside and people will wait in the cold and the snow and the rain,” she said. “Poverty is real and it’s dense in this community. The link between poverty and literacy is real, too. How does somebody who doesn’t have the literacy skills fill out forms, how do they become gainfully employed?”

While there are community programs, “there are still marginalized families in the community that don’t know about or don’t feel comfortable engaging and interacting with these services,” said Cox. “It’s our responsibility to bridge that gap—we’re trying to create a program and services that are meeting marginalized families where they are.”

This fall, for example, the program was piloted for the first time in one of the neediest schools in the community, where about 50 per cent of every Grade 3 class is struggling to meet the provincial standard for reading. “The teachers in the school have jumped at the opportunity to support this program,” said Cox. So far, they’ve seen an improvement in attitudes toward reading; kids are more excited and focused in class.

EarlyON Child and Family Centres also provide free family programs to parents and their children (up to six years of age) in communities and in some schools, supporting parent education and fostering healthy child development. This includes a library program, where families can take home (and keep) free books.

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“I think the only way you can break intergenerational poverty is giving children opportunities to read,” said Cynthia Pommells, family resource program manager for EarlyON programs with the Delta Family Resource Centre. “When you improve their reading ability, it’s a way of giving them an education and an opportunity to build better lives as they get older.”

The program engages children—and parents. “The changes can happen when parents become interested … where you’re engaging the parents and then letting them know why we need to do this,” said Pommells.

In some cases, parents may lack literacy skills themselves, so they’re not able to help their child at home (or, even if there are books at home, the parents might not put an emphasis on reading). According to Statistics Canada, 17 per cent of Canadian adults aged 16 to 65 had a literacy score of Level 1 or below (meaning they can only find single pieces of information in short texts). Among those with the lowest levels of literacy, 29 per cent were in low-income households.

If children grow up with poor reading skills, they’re more likely to end up working unskilled jobs—and continue living in poverty “because of the intergenerational piece they inherited from their parents,” said Pommells. “So, we try to give parents that educational piece also.”

Literacy allows children to successfully move onto post-secondary education and become gainfully employed, said Cox, but it’s not the only benefit. When she was young, books allowed her to ‘travel,’ despite her inability to physically travel. “I was able to imagine and experience a world outside of my everyday lived experiences through the books I was reading,” she said.

“A child in poverty can experience a world outside of their own through books,” said Cox. “They need to be able to hope and dream and aspire to something better … Books provide another opportunity to see and experience a positive world and positive people.”

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