Front-line Workers Are Trained to Spot Literacy Issues

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When it comes to raising literacy levels, at least half the battle is in persuading those who can't read that it's okay to ask for help.

Delivering help before they ask is the goal of Prince George's Train the Tutor program, funded by 2010 Legacies Now. These three-day workshops are designed to train people in key social service jobs how to spot clients whose underlying problem is a lack of literacy.

As Prince George's literacy outreach coordinator notes, you need to be smart to get by without reading, so those with poor reading skills are often inventive when it comes to hiding their lack of reading ability.

"They often claim they've forgotten their glasses at home, if they have to fill out forms. Or they say that they'll take the forms and fill them out there. They're just too embarrassed to tell anybody," Helen Domshy says. "So we decided we needed a grassroots program to help identify literacy problems at the ground level."

Some poor readers get support from co-workers who explain things verbally, while others lean on their children for help. Domshy says that some poor readers find their way into adult literacy classes because they lost a non-reading job and are now forced to cope with computers. Others have more personal motivations, like learning to read to their grandchildren.

But those who seek help are just the tip of the iceberg. According to Literacy B.C. about 40 per cent of Canadians have literacy skills so limited they can't manage day-to-day reading and writing tasks, such as perusing labels, maps or filling out government forms.

In a bad economy, they're the most vulnerable workers.

"Literacy is how you move up in your occupation. People stuck at lower levels are the first ones to go," Domshy says, explaining why eliminating functional illiteracy is so crucial to the economy.

Keri Whitlock, a job coach with the Northern John Howard Society, says the three-day Train the Tutor workshop "opened her eyes" to why many of her clients were having problems with employment.

Whitlock works with people recently released from jail, including repeat offenders. She now realizes that they're probably turning to crime because they lack the reading skills necessary to work - the average literacy level in prison is Grade 7.

"Until I did Train the Tutor, I just took it for granted everyone could read," Whitlock says, adding that she learned to recognize many of her clients were inventive in hiding illiteracy. "The course explained why and how some of them were getting around it."

Whitlock says she also learned how important it was for clients to feel safe before they would disclose their reading and writing problems, and that some of what she did unconsciously was making them uncomfortable.

"I have a lot of books in my office and that can be intimidating for someone who can't read, for example. And I didn't read out forms when I'm helping them fill them out. I've learned to use plain language - say skin cancer instead of melanoma - which is another thing I didn't think about."

She adds that the workshops also created a network for people in the social service agencies, and provided contacts that help her do her job better.

Literacy Now Communities guides communities through a planning process to identify and address local literacy needs. The program is supported by the Province of British Columbia.