Canada’s literacy gap

Canada has a literacy gap that starts early and disproportionately affects children and adults with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. It does not have to be this way. Decoding Dyslexia Ontario advocates for schools to identify dyslexia early and adopt evidence-based curriculum so that all children learn to read, and all adults have the skills they need to succeed in life.

1. Almost half of Canadians struggle with literacy.

  • Canada earns a “C” grade on inadequate literacy skills in the latest international comparison study; 48% of Canadian adults have inadequate literacy skills—a significant increase from a decade ago; Despite efforts to improve adult literacy rates in Canada, the share of adults with inadequate literacy skills has increased over the past 10 years.” ~The Conference Board of Canada
  • “48 per cent of adult Canadians have low literacy skills that fall below high school equivalency and affect their ability to function at work and in their personal lives.” ~ABC Life, Literacy, Canada
  • Despite relatively high education rates, an analysis of international assessments by Statistics Canada in 2013 showed that more than one in six adult Canadians fell short of passing the most basic set of literacy tests (CBC, January 17, 2021)

2. More than 1 in 10 Canadian students are not learning to read proficiently.

  • “PCAP 2016 scores in reading literacy suggest some cause for concern. More than one in ten Canadian students do not meet the level of reading proficiency expected at the Grade 8/Secondary II level.” Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), The Council of Ministers of Education

3. In Ontario, children with reading disabilties such as dyslexia are not getting the help they need to learn to read.

  • Students identified with a learning disability are the largest group of “exceptionalities” in Ontario schools, and the majority of those — about 80% — are students with dyslexia. Yet very few of them receive the early identification and intervention that they require.
  • Students with dyslexia face many barriers to learning in Ontario schools: lack of awareness, lack of timely identification, lack of scientific and evidence-based reading instruction, and lack of teacher training in evidence-based reading instruction methodology.

4. Children with dyslexia show very sizeable education achievement gaps and outcomes in comparison with neurotypical students.

  • 26% of Ontario’s Grade 3 students and 53% of Grade 3 students with special education needs did not meet the Provincial Standard (Level 3 or 4) for reading (2018-2019, EQAO)
  • Only 50% of students with special education needs passed the Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, which measures whether students are meeting the minimum standard for literacy across all subjects up to the end of Grade 9 (2018-2019, EQAO)
  • In 2018–2019, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) concluded that: “The persistent discrepancy in achievement between students with special education needs and those without requires attention.”

The impact is greater for those from lower economic households who can’t afford to pay for tutoring and private schools, and for students affected by systemic racism. The Yale Centre for Creativity and Dyslexia reports that in the US: “Dyslexia likely is a significant reason for the persistent reading achievement gap in children from all backgrounds, especially low-income African-American and Hispanic children.”

5. Literacy is a critical skill. Without early intervention and support, children and adults with dyslexia face lifelong challenges.

Without support, students with dyslexia are at higher risk to:

  • struggle in other areas of their education
  • suffer from low-esteem and feel less capable than they actually are
  • be bullied at school
  • suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges
  • experience abuse at home
  • drop out of school
  • be underemployed and unemployed
  • be homeless

Those who struggle with reading in childhood are at higher risk to struggle with reading throughout their lives: more than 74% of children entering Grade 1 who are at risk for reading failure will continue to have reading problems into adulthood (Lyon, G.R. 2003).

Full list of sources for these statistics can be found here: dyslexia facts.

6. If the barrier to learning to read, the foundation for all learning, is not removed, the high costs to individuals and to Canadian society will continue to escalate.

  • “The World Literacy Foundation estimates that the cost of illiteracy in Canada is $32.31 billion in US dollars. Canadians with low literacy are more likely to be unemployed and live under the poverty line. Canadians at prose literacy Level 1 are twice as likely to rely on social assistance from the government.” (Illiteracy in Canada, ELF)
  • “Increasing the proportion of Canadians who achieve Level 3 literacy by just 1% would result in a permanent $18 billion/year increase in our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).” (Illiteracy in Canada, ELF)

7. We can improve literacy in Canada. Every child can learn to read with effective, evidence-based instruction.

  • “Students with reading disabilities have the right to learn to read. Yet, the OHRC is concerned that students with reading disabilities are not getting the supports they need. This is all the more troubling because reading disabilities can be remediated with early intervention and support.” ~The Ontario Human Rights Commission


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