New Brunswick is the only province where francophones continue to significantly lag behind their English-speaking counterparts on literacy tests, according to a new Statistics Canada study.

"All the gaps that were observed in the past surveys let's say between the English- and French-speaking populations throughout the country have almost disappeared except for francophones in New Brunswick," said Jean-Pierre Corbeil, chief specialist for language and immigration statistics at Statistics Canada.

More than 60 per cent of francophones did not have functional reading or writing skills compared to 50 per cent of anglophones, scoring below Level 3 on a scale of five through the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

A decade ago, a Statistics Canada study using the PIAAC results from 2003 showed 56 per cent of New Brunswick francophones didn't have functional literacy skill.

But Corbeil said the methodology has slightly changed and francophones' literacy level has not deteriorated.

He also said the french-english literacy gap has slightly narrowed since the 2006 study.

The latest study, entitled The Literacy Skills of New Brunswick francophones, was released Monday and based on PIAAC test results from 2012 and the 2011 National Household Survey.

As for a national comparison, New Brunswick francophones on average scored 10 points lower on the test than francophones in other parts of the country.

'We have to invest more in education'

The key to improving adult literacy is investing more in education, according to the group representing francophone teachers.

Marc Arseneau, president of l'Association des enseignants francophones du Nouveau-Brunswick, said literacy rates among francophone students are improving, which will boost adult literacy rates in the coming years. 

But in the meantime, more resources for teachers should be the focus.

"We have to invest more in education, so the teachers have more help in the classroom to work with kids," said Arseneau. 

"For instance when some kids get in class in an early age they don't even speak the language if they're from a family where there's one english and one french-speaking, so we have to work on that at the beginning of the classroom."

Why the literacy lag?

The study outlines a number of reasons, including:

  • Declining industrial sector: Francophones represented more than 40 per cent of the labour force in declining industrial sectors, where they're less likely to use or improve literacy skills.
  • Lower level of education: 31 per cent of francophones in New Brunswick don't have a certificate, diploma or degree, compared to 18 per cent of anglophones.
  • Aging population: New Brunswick's francophone population is older than the anglophone community. Low literacy in the test results increased with age.
  • Young francophones leaving: New Brunswick had a net loss of 6,000 francophones who held at least a bachelor's degree in 2011.

The gaps in literacy among anglophones and francophones have decreased in other areas of Canada because of increased education levels, said Corbeil.

Regionally, francophones in northern New Brunswick had the worst scores on the test, falling 13 to 16 points below francophones' scores in the rest of the province.