Decoda is set to improve literacy skills one person at a time

The United Nations (UN) has declared September 8 International Literacy Day and in British Columbia, the entire month is dedicated to literacy.

Literacy is crucial for people to operate in society at the most basic level for everyone every day, in almost every aspect of life. Everyone who enters a shop to buy a carton of milk needs the ability to read the label, and every person who drives a car needs to be able to read traffic signs.

Surprisingly, this is an ability that many Canadians lack.

According to data collected in 2013 by the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, 48 per cent of adult Canadians have literacy skills that fall below a high school level and 17 per cent can only function at the lowest level, lacking the ability to read the basic instructions written on the side of a medicine bottle. And these low literacy levels are correlated directly with unemployment, poverty, and poor health.

How are British Columbians fairing? Decoda, an organisation that works with 100 Literacy Outreach Coordinators (LOCs) across the province, has found that those who lack core literacy skills are deeply impaired by it. Decoda, wants to make a difference by improving literacy skills in children and adults throughout British Columbia. Its vision is of “a British Colombia where everyone has the literacy skills they need.”

Community outreach and services

Decoda provides community-based services through the use of resources, training, and funding to 400 communities in B.C. which includes 51,200 children and 18,891 adults.

“Our job is to increase the capacity of communities to do literacy work,” Maureen Kehler, program manager at Decoda explains. “It is foundational, it is everything, you need basic literacy to work, to live your life, to connect. It’s a huge piece in equity and inclusion. You are excluded from so much in the community, from so much work. But not just work, it’s about contributing to the community, and the rest of the community who receives that contribution. Because people have other skills, and if literacy is missing, it’s hard for them to use those skills. We live in a print-based society, and reading and writing are necessary”.

Many people have been unable to gain these skills as children through the formal education system, due to a range of factors. Some barriers to literacy include learning disabilities or difficulty learning in a traditional school setting, or movement from one school to another, resulting in students losing part of their education in the process. Other factors can be trauma, family poverty, domestic disharmony, and often a basic lack of nutrition. If a child is not reading at a third-grade level by the time they are in third grade, they will be educationally stunted for the rest of their lives.

“They are more likely to drop out of school and not have a good job or to go to university, so their pre-school education is necessary too, which is why parents and families need to know to support their children in literacy,” Kehler explains.

Literacy in children and adults

To combat child illiteracy, and as preventative measures, Dacoda runs programs that engage parents and caregivers as literacy supporters. The program allows families to look at literacy in their daily lives and to involve themselves in strengthening it.

CBAL tutor Lori helps Delila learn to read through the Fostering Literacy program. | Photo by Kayla Wilson

“We focus on families. If we help families realize that they are the best teachers for their children, and enhance their own teaching, then we’ll have more children reading at a grade three level at grade three, and we’ll have more children staying in school, who will become adults who will have the literacy skills that they need,” Kehler explains.

Decoda runs programs such as this one by employing its network of literacy outreach coordinators across the 400 communities that they support. To increase the capacity of literary practitioners across the province, Decoda’s outreach coordinators bring together diverse groups, from multiple sectors, to discuss community development from the standpoint of literacy.

The organisation’s on-the-ground coordinators are the lynchpin of its program. This is of particular importance for their Displaced Worker program which works to address the needs of adult workers who have been displaced from their jobs and to develop practices and programs to support them.

“It’s focused on adults with lower literacy skills, who are unemployed or underemployed. They are people from groups who are not serviced well with other social services, people in remote places without digital access or devices and the knowledge to use them,” Kehler explains.

However, even with programs such as this one, there are still problems aiding everyone who needs help. Other difficulties come from people’s fear of being stigmatized and their reluctance to admit the need for help.

“It is really hard for people to say ‘I don’t know how to read. It is changing and people are realizing that it doesn’t mean anything about intelligence, but it is a big stigma piece,” Kehler says.

It is these barriers that make Decodas’ work meaningful.

“Our reason for being is to help people with lower literacy skills. It is fundamental, it is a human right, and everyone should have the literacy skills they need to participate in society,” Kehler says.

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