Literacy Development in Canada

By Desrochers, Alain; Major, Sonya | Canadian Psychology, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Literacy Development in Canada


Desrochers, Alain, Major, Sonya, Canadian Psychology


Literacy development has been found to have a considerable influence on individuals' lives, modern society, and its economy. As a consequence, a great deal of attention has been devoted to the facets of literacy, the conditions that facilitate its development, and its impact. This special issue of Canadian Psychology provides a sample of current research programmes carried out on literacy development by Canadian researchers in psychology and education. The topics addressed include emergent literacy, the longitudinal prediction of reading development, the development of oral reading and reading comprehension, literacy development amongst French immersion students, the importance of culturally and developmentally appropriate practices in literacy instruction, and the prevention of reading difficulties. The concluding article provides an overview of the current definitions of learning/reading disabilities in Canadian provinces and territories.

Keywords: literacy development, emergent literacy, prediction and prevention of reading difficulties, development of oral reading and reading comprehension, reading instruction

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 set forth the principle of education for all and universal literacy. Still today, it is estimated that over 770 million adults around the world are illiterate, including 130 million young people (ages 15 to 24), and these estimates are expected to remain unchanged in 2015 (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], 2004, 2005). The factors responsible for illiteracy or insufficient literacy are numerous and complex. They include limited access to schooling (e.g., in developing countries) and inadequate preparation for reading instruction (e.g., in disadvantaged areas; Magnuson, Meyers, Ruhm, & Waldfogel, 2004). Recent literacy surveys rank Canada amongst the top five industrialized countries around the world for its high literacy rate. Yet the 2003 survey results indicate that the literacy skills of 40% of Canadian adults (ages 16 to 65) fall below the level that is considered necessary for an entry-level job in modern society and economy (Statistics Canada, 2004, 2005). The consequences of illiteracy or low literacy skills are broad ranging: They include lower school achievement (e.g., persistence, competence), poorer physical and mental health (e.g., life expectancy), and lower employability and work productivity. Several national and international organisations have urged decision makers to take action to foster literacy development for all. The Canadian Council on Learning (2007) emphasized that "Canada cannot afford to be complacent about literacy" (p. 121) as there are still significant challenges to be addressed. Because nearly all countries around the world face similar challenges, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (2002) has called the period of 2003 to 2012 the Literacy Decade.

The practise of equating literacy with alphabetization is now viewed as inadequate to address illiteracy as a sociopolitical problem that affects lifelong learning, personal and cultural identity, citizenship, equality of opportunities, governance, and civil society. A broader perspective has led to increasingly encompassing definitions of the term literacy. For instance, UNESCO experts now define literacy as "the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society" (UNESCO, 2004, p. 13).

In an attempt to reconcile different perspectives, UNESCO experts broke down the concept of literacy into four facets. First, literacy can be viewed as the set of cognitive skills that are necessary to read and write. …

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