Early literacy needs to be championed

ROXANNE FAIRWEATHER COMMENTARY - Telegraph Journal – Wednesday August 27, 2014 

The most basic and well-known rule of investing smart is to “start early,” as it generally applies to the stock market or retirement planning. Achieve Literacy Greater Saint John has found that it also applies to solving our literacy problem.

The first three years of school are critical in literacy development for all children. Children who do not read at grade level by Grade 3 have a 60 per cent higher chance than their peers of significantly underachieving relative to their potential, which often leads to a failure to complete high school.

In New Brunswick, 56 per cent of Anglophone adults and 64 per cent of Francophone adults rank below the national average for literacy skill levels — even though our spend on primary education is equivalent to the national average. This is an issue that has countless socio-economic repercussions and negatively impacts our potential to become a more competitive, productive and prosperous province.

Earlier this year, Achieve Literacy Greater Saint John hosted an event with Craig Alexander, TD Bank’s Senior Vice President and Chief Economist, to look specifically at the economic impact of literacy rates at both the provincial and national levels.

We learned that literacy and numeracy scores in New Brunswick are the second worst in Canada, and that the average literacy score in Canada has fallen seven points over the last decade, compared to a two-point gain by the other OECD member countries.

As a province looking to grow its economy through the industrial and technology sectors, a skilled and educated workforce is absolutely critical to our success.

Mr. Alexander also suggested that businesses need to become champions of literacy. Strengthening our literacy skills can raise productivity, profitability, and reduce costs of government services, as well as bring countless other sustainable gains to individuals, businesses, the economy and to society.

Literacy skills are the foundation upon which so many critical life skills are built, and indeed, upon which a thriving economy is built. UNB’s own Dr. Doug Willms confirms that first we “learn to read” and then “read to learn.” If children do not read at grade level by the end of Grade 3, their foundation for numeracy is also extremely compromised, as well as their ability to learn at pace for all other subjects. This, in turn,   breaks their confidence and creates a downward spiral. In addition, from Grade 3 onward, it becomes increasingly more difficult and exponentially more expensive to address literacy deficiencies.

It is a natural imperative that every New Brunswick child learns to read by Grade 2. Literacy has to be the number one priority of our publicly-funded education system from kindergarten to Grade 3 — no exceptions!

The return-on-investment associated with early literacy education is immense:

  • Reduced poverty rates

  • Better health outcomes

  • Reduced crime

  • Increased workforce readiness and skills

  • Strengthened economic capacity and growth

  • Increased innovation

  • Increased tax bases and reduced government costs

  • Increased civic participation.

Yet, we know that 22 per cent of Grade 2 students across the province are not reading at appropriate levels for Grade 2, and many Saint John schools fall significantly below that statistic. Fortunately, there is a plan to make needed changes.

Achieve Literacy Greater Saint John is a partnership with the Anglophone School District South, the business   community and the volunteer community. This is an all hands on deck issue – we need to work together to achieve success.

Our mandate is to Empower Every Child through Reading and to achieve, in all Saint John schools, the provincial target of 90 per cent of Grade 2 students reading at grade level by 2016. Together, we can do this!

One may wonder why the business community has taken the lead when it comes to literacy in Saint John? For anyone who owns or starts a business in our community, it makes sense. Improving literacy and education outcomes is key to reducing poverty.

The return on investment is obvious: helping students early on increases the odds that they will go on to become positive contributors to our businesses and to society.

Working with Elementary Literacy Inc. (ELF), we have been successful in reaching students during this critical time through volunteer mentors. In as little as 20 hours of one-on-one mentoring, a student can move up two whole reading levels, not to mention boosting their confidence and cultivating a love of learning. It shows through the smiles on their faces when they know they can succeed! This can be done!

Saint John is a generous community and many of our students have already benefited tremendously from the time and talent that businesses lend to our schools through organizations such as the Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative (BCAPI), PALs, and the Elementary Literacy Friends program. Through them, students are getting access to assistance and opportunities that would not otherwise be available, but the business community cannot solve the literacy issue we are facing alone.

We are asking the provincial government and all candidates to close the education achievement gap. Make early literacy one of the top three priorities for our province, and have a clear, publicly communicated plan and timelines to reach the target of 90 per cent of students reading at grade level by the end of Grade 2 by 2016.

Please challenge all candidates in your riding to ensure that their party is committed to solving this issue and helping all of our children to succeed.

ROXANNE FAIRWEATHER is Chair of Achieve Literacy and a member of BCAPI’s Leadership Group. This essay is part of a series examining ways to close the education achievement gap.

Katie Bowden