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By Wayne Grady

“Learning to read begins at birth,” said Clara Bohrer, an advocate for early childhood literacy in the United States. “The parent is the child’s first and most valuable teacher, and parents need to be educated to be equipped for so vital a role in the child’s development.”

Dr. Bohrer was speaking in January at the second annual National Reading Campaign Summit, a Canadian initiative that was formed to establish a national reading strategy that will increase Canada’s literacy rate. Currently Canada, at 97 percent, ranks 20th on the U.N. list of world literacy rates, but that ranking is deceptive; it is also true that, according to Statistics Canada, 15 percent of Canadians can’t understand the labels on medicine bottles, 27 percent can’t interpret the warnings on hazardous waste material sheets, and 42 percent are “semi-literate,” which means they technically can read, but their comprehension levels are very low. The Canadian Council on Learning recently noted that 48 percent of Canadians have skills below the internationally accepted standard of literacy required to cope in modern society.

Educators are recognizing that raising the literacy level begins with very early childhood. At the moment, one child in four begins kindergarten in Canada without the skills needed to learn how to read; in the U.S., the figure is 35 percent. Dr. Bohrer is the chair of an American program introduced in 2004 to address the problem. Called “Every Child Ready to Read” (ECRR), the program focuses not on public schools but on public libraries, where children are exposed to books and reading long before they hit kindergarten. “Libraries are now seen as important resources in communities for early literacy,” she said.

Public libraries in Canada anticipated the ECRR program with their own initiatives. In 2001, Quebec instituted Une Naissance, Un Livre (One Baby, One Book), in which every parent who registers a child under the age of 12 months at a local library receives a gift-bag containing a picture book, a music CD, and a copy of the magazine Enfants-Québec. Parents are encouraged to spend time reading with their infants, not only at the library but also at home. As well as acquiring basic learning skills, children come to associate reading with nurturing, with parent-child bonding, associations that last a lifetime. After ten years, tests show that Quebec three-year-olds who have not received the gift-bags have a vocabulary of 616 words, whereas three-year-olds enrolled in the program have vocabularies of 2,150 words. Clearly, the program is working.

“Talking to a child is important, of course,” says Patricia Enright, manager of Childrens, Teens and Rural Services at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, “but reading to a child introduces him or her to words that are not part of the parent’s regular vocabulary.”

Inspired by Quebec and the ECRR programs, KFPL has for the past four years opened its doors to pre-readers and their parents or caregivers. “Books for Babies” focuses on newborns, introducing them to stories, songs, and rhymes. “Wonderful Ones” is for walkers to 23-month-olds, and adds movement to the mix, and “Growing Readers,” aimed at 2- to 5-year-olds, continues with stories and songs and also poetry and more movement.

“These programs are very popular,” says Patricia. “We’re over-capacity in all of them. But they have to involve the parents as much as the children, and the program has to be continued at home. Parents can’t just come to the library for half-an-hour a week and expect their child to have a richer vocabulary. And we think it’s working. It’s hard to assess how much learning is going on at home, but we do ask the caregivers if they have borrowed library materials, books, CDs, magazines, for their children, and 85 to 90 percent say yes, they have.”

KFPL has also partnered with Kingston Literacy and Skills to give free books to children in the Kingston area.

The Kingston Rotary Club also recognizes the importance of early childhood education. Seven years ago, Jim Frid, a local Rotarian and child psychologist, began a program to distribute children’s books to pediatric wards in Hotel Dieu and Kingston General; since hospitals cannot accept used books, the Rotarians raised funds and purchased new books from children’s book publishers. So far, the program has distributed more than 14,000 books in the community and has been so successful that Rotary Canada is considering adopting it as a national initiative.

There is also the “Rotary Initiated Child Enrichment,” or RICE, program, which was set up in Kingston in 2003, by which every Grade-One child in the city is provided with a library card: 4,000 cards have been given out so far. “Food for Thought,” another Rotary project, distributes books to families at local food banks.

All these programs can’t help but raise reading and comprehension skills in the Kingston area, and in the country at large. We cannot afford to be complacent about our level of literacy. True, a recent poll showed that in one week in January of this year, 2.7 million books were either purchased from bookstores or borrowed from public libraries: assuming that a similar number of books were acquired the previous week, we can guess that about 5 million people were reading a book that week. That’s one out of every seven Canadians. We can do better.

In the past year, out of every dollar spent by the federal government on arts funding in Canada, 47 cents went to broadcasting, and only 4 cents went to publishing. We can do better.

Why should we? Is having a higher literacy rate important? What tangible benefits derive from being a true nation of readers?

Statistics Canada reports that every 1-percent increase in the nation’s literacy rate translates into a 2.5 percent increase in our gross domestic product. In other words, every time 350,000 Canadians learn to read, our GDP goes up by $32 billion. That’s one incentive, but there are other, perhaps more important, considerations.

Currently, about one in three Canadians are not literate enough to understand the difference between opposing points of view in newspaper editorials. We are now in the midst of an election campaign. Living in a country in which 48 percent of the population have substandard literacy skills has serious implications for the future of participatory democracy.

Wayne Grady is a member of the National Reading Campaign’s steering committee. He lives north of Kingston.
Originally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard