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.”

Ways you can help:

 

5 ways to raise good humans

An earlier version of this story appeared on imagineacity.ca in April 2017 and has been updated and edited here.

This time of year is all about giving back—to friends, family and community. And it’s never too early to get your kids—mini philanthropists-in-the-making—thinking about the importance of doing good. So we’ve put together this “cheat sheet” on simple and quick ways to start a conversation around empathy, generosity and being a good human.

1. Show them the way

“Our children are like little sponges who suck up a lot of what we say and do,” says Mary Bean, Senior Director, Culture and Leadership at Learn2. “So one great way to get them involved in helping others is to do so ourselves.” You can start doing this when your kids are young—Bean started volunteering with her little ones when they were six—by bringing them along and talking about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. “Tie some purpose to your activities, and explain, ‘I do this because it’s important for…,’” Bean says. She recommends picking volunteer opportunities that are connected to your child’s world, like their soccer team, school or local playground. “That helps to bring it to a frame of reference that they can understand,” she explains. With her kids, Bean chose activities that they could be actively involved in. “I wouldn’t have brought them to a meeting where I was sitting on a board as a volunteer, or that kind of thing. It was more things like setting up for a bake sale, or getting ready for their school fun fair, so they could see the results of their efforts—and enjoy them.”

2. Get them inspired

“Volunteer experiences need to be tied to something that gives you a sense of connection and belonging as an individual. So, what is your child interested in?” says Bean. It could be volunteering at the Humane Society and giving some furry friends a little love on a Saturday morning, she says. Or, finding a way to help kids their age. “Think about the questions your child is asking about the world, or things you’re bringing up at the table over a meal that they’re asking more than one question about,” she recommends.

When they get a bit older, you can also sign kids up for programs that have a volunteer component like Girl Guides or Scouts. Or, she says, if they want to try a new activity, use that as an opening to get them to think about giving back. If, for example, they ask to be on a hockey team, make it part of the deal for them to help you do something community-minded that’s connected to the activity, such as making the weekly team snack. That way, you’ll connect good-human behaviour to something they love.

You can also encourage them to come up with their own ideas for community initiatives or ways to give back. Who knows, you might have a social innovator on your hands.

3. Make them feel appreciated

One way to help kids blossom into good humans is to make sure they feel appreciated for what they offer, notes Bean. “Kids aren’t thanked very much,” she says, so it’s a powerful thing to let them know they contributed in a meaningful way and helped others. “A sense of belonging and a sense of happiness are connected,” explains Bean, “which is why I think volunteerism is so powerful, because you’re really contributing and belonging to something bigger than yourself.” Thanking your kids, or having an organizer thank them, will make them feel that they’re now part of a wider community, encouraging them to keep giving back.

4. Broaden their minds

Part of the process of raising kids who give back is helping them learn about the world beyond their lives, says Sara Marlowe, a clinical social worker who teaches mindfulness to children and families. One great way to start these conversations is by reading books together about people with different experiences. “For younger kids, books can be a gentle way to introduce concepts,” Marlowe says. Another way to offer the idea that there are things your family may have that others may not is by guiding them to set aside some of their allowance money to donate, she explains. This can help them understand not only that people in their community are in need, but also that there is something they can do to help.

5. Foster empathy

Cultivating self-compassion and empathy is a way to build on your child’s desire to want to help, explains Marlowe. “Research shows when we’re kinder to ourselves, and more compassionate toward ourselves, we’re kinder to and more compassionate with other people,” she says. “It strengthens our ability to be empathetic.”

One way to help our kids be more empathetic is to explicitly talk about how others may be feeling. “From very early on, we can start to encourage children to be aware of others,” says Marlowe. So, point out facial expressions in a picture book and ask your child how that person feels, or if you see an incident at the playground, ask your little one to consider what that experience was like for each of the kids present.

This is also another area where you can model the behaviour you want to see. Remember, kids are like sponges, so when you show kindness and empathy to others, your children will pick up on it.

Want to learn more about how we can help kids become good humans?