COVER STORY: For the love of reading

Gillian McLeod is the manager for Delta’s public libraries and says reducing the stigma surrounding illiteracy is key to convincing adults with literacy issues to come forward and seek help. -  Robert Mangelsdorf
Gillian McLeod is the manager for Delta’s public libraries and says reducing the stigma surrounding illiteracy is key to convincing adults with literacy issues to come forward and seek help.
— image credit: Robert Mangelsdorf

For years, Saima Riasat felt like an alien in her new home. After moving to Canada from Pakistan close to 20 years ago, she found herself trapped in the bubble of her expatriate community by her inability to communicate. Preoccupied with starting a family and raising her three daughters, she had neither the reason nor the opportunity to learn English.

Soon, she says, she found herself isolated. She was unable to travel outside her community, or communicate with her children’s teachers. She didn’t even know her phone number or address.

“I was very shy,” she says. “And lonely”

It’s not an uncommon feeling for those with poor literacy skills, says Linda Brummitt. Brummitt is the outreach coordinator for the Delta Community Literacy Committee, which is made up of representatives from the Delta School District, Tsawwassen First Nation, Fraser Health Authority, Fraser Valley Regional Library, and a host of other community support groups. The group hopes to reach local residents  struggling with literacy issues and give them the support they need to improve their English skills.

But the isolation those with poor literacy skills experience, as well as the shame many feel in not being able to read and write, often make it a difficult problem to address.

“People hide it, so it’s hard to fix a problem you can’t see,” says Brummitt.

She doesn’t take much stock in the oft-repeated statistic that 99 per cent of adult Canadians are literate.

“The truth is, it’s not a number we can easily peg,” she says. “On the surface we have high graduation rates here, and Delta residents are highly involved in post-secondary education. But there are groups here in Delta who are having a hard time.”

Specifically, those from poor socio-economic backgrounds, those with developmental disabilities, aboriginals, and new Canadians all face considerable literacy challenges.

For Riasat, not being able to communicate led her to live an isolated existence. The world outside of her front door was confusing and frustrating.

But she has since come out of her shell, thanks to an adult literacy group sponsored by the Delta Community Literacy Committee.

“Next month I’m getting my driver’s licence,” she says proudly. “I’ve made more friends and I’m not afraid anymore. I can speak to anyone now.”

Edna Pinto runs the literacy group, based out of Hellings Elementary in North Delta. She says many of the women in group had children in the preschool StrongStart program at the school.

“The mothers and grandmothers would come with their children, and I noticed they had a connection,” Pinto says. “They came from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and most have never gone to school.”

When the children aged out of the program, she saw an opportunity to keep the group of parents together and help them work on their literacy skills.

Using language games and YouTube videos, the group is able to learn the basics of the English language. They all get homework, and have to write out a page in English every week.

“We started out teaching them how to write their names and addresses,” says Pinto. “Then we roleplay and have them act out different scenarios, like going to a hospital. Now, if something happens, if they have to go to the hospital or talk to their children’s teachers, they can communicate and take care of that.”

For Riasat, the experience has been liberating.

“I even recorded our voice message,” she says, beaming. “In English!”

A key component of making literacy fun is the social element to the program.

At the Aboriginal Parents as Literacy Supports (PALS) group hosted at Tsawwassen First Nation, children and their parents are invited to share a meal together before moving on to the literacy component of the night.

Ladner mom Angie Joe brings her seven-year-old son Noah and five-year-old daughter to the monthly program because she wants them to develop into lifelong readers, and establish a strong connection to their aboriginal heritage.

“It’s a great learning environment,” she says. “For the people who live off reserve, it helps tie them to [Tsawwassen First Nation] and introduce them to the culture.”

The program, which is also sponsored by the Delta Community Literacy Committee, is open to both aboriginal and non-aboriginal families. In addition to learning literacy skills, kids learn all about native culture, with TFN elders playing a key role as mentor and teacher.

One of the lingering results of the residential school system is that many aboriginal elders do not trust the public education system and place little value in it, says Joe.

“But once aboriginal parents have a role and they are needed and they are valued, they get right on board,” she says.

Brummitt the earlier kids can get interested in reading and develop literacy skills, the better. Many of those who go through the public education system as functionally illiterate will pick up just enough to get them through.

“If a young person hasn’t acquired a basic literacy level, say, to read a newspaper or balance a checkbook, if they haven’t done that by graduation, they are at risk of losing skills,” she says.

Once they are out of the public education system, it can often be difficult to reach those who are struggling with their literacy skills.

Delta libraries are one of the many partners working with the Delta Community Literacy Committee to improve literacy.

As more and more reading material moves to the digital format, Delta libraries manager Gillian McLeod says it’s important for libraries to not just exist as a place that lends books, but as an open education centre with programming for the entire community.

The Ladner Pioneer Library is home to a number of programs aimed at improving literacy, including the Page Turners Book Club, which specifically targets adults with developmental disabilities.

“Many are shy and have issues with communication when they first come here,” says McLeod. But over time, as their communication skills improve, the participants become less frustrated and better behaved.

Connecting with the general population who may be struggling with their literacy skills remains an issue, however.

Overcoming the stigma of illiteracy is key to getting those who are struggling to come forward and get the help they need.

“With people who are ESL, we have a high [participation], because there’s no stigma for them,” says McLeod. “But for the general population, who might be reading at a Grade 5 level, they’re ashamed to get help.”

Public libraries are great places to seek help, judgement-free, for those looking to improve your reading and language skills.

“There’s thousands of people in our community [who have literacy issues],” says McLeod. “This is a safe place to get help.”

• For more information about the Delta Community Literacy Committee’s many literacy programs, contact 604-818-3290.

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