What does literacy mean? 

There's more to language education than learning to read

by Glen Herbert

In the developed world, rates of prose literacy—the ability to decode words on the page—is higher now than at any time in our history. The same, however, isn’t true in terms of functional literacy, namely, the level of fluency required to engage meaningfully with others, present ideas, and navigate within academic and professional contexts. The Conference Board of Canada reported in 2020 that only 14 percent of Canadians are at level 5 (literacy is ranked on five levels, with level 3 considered essential for basic employment) which, as they also reported, represents a significant decrease from just a decade before. 

That’s a problem. Our learners need more than simply being able to read. An ability to communicate effectively, and to think critically—the skills that characterise level 5—has consistently ranked among the top four skills that employers look for when screening applicants. Yet only 14% of Canadian students are graduating from public high school with that level of literacy. These are the skills that will get them into their careers, and which will help them advance once there. A majority don’t have them. Without functional literacy skills, students will face barriers in accessing education, employment, and essential services. 

The only way you acquire functional literacy is through instruction. Just as it would be hard for a student to independently intuit unaided the Pythagorean theorem, so, too, is it hard for a student to intuit the basics of style, punctuation, and usage. Likewise, the only way to learn how to present to a group is through doing it, intentionally, from the basics and moving up. Presenting complex ideas, such as academic arguments, are learned in the same way: the basics first. You can't write an essay until you master paragraphs, and you can't complete a paragraph until you understand the components of a sentence.

Functional literacy includes comprehension—understanding not just the words, but also the ideas of others—as well as participation—responding with well-constructed, clear arguments. It’s about joining a conversation, broadcasting not only what we think, but also who we are and the perspectives we bring. Again, employers and university admissions officers  aren’t looking for candidates who can read, they are looking for candidates who can communicate. 

In the RLC ELL enrichment program students concentrate on those skills in isolation: reading, writing, and oral communication. They range from basic grammar to what classicists would refer to as rhetoric: logic, compositional techniques, and figures of speech. In public speaking workshops, students are asked to consider tone, pacing, and incorporating non-verbal cues, such as hand gestures (while also considering when too many non-verbal cues can become distracting). They then put those elements into practice through writing, speaking and role-play.

The program is predicated on the conviction that, to be successful, students A) need to gain an understanding of the basics, B) they need to grow their abilities through practice and feedback, and C) they need to adopt a posture of success and a confidence in their abilities. In all of those things, instruction at RLC takes up where much language instruction leaves off, putting students at an advantage to many of their peers, and setting them up for success in secondary, post-secondary, and beyond. 

For more on English Langauge Learning at Rosseau Lake College, click here.