New Brunswick Votes·Opinion

Literacy levels must take front seat in election campaign

The next New Brunswick government must put in steps to improve the province's literacy rates, according to former lieutenant governor Mariliyn Trenholme Counsell.

Ex-Lt.-Gov. Mariliyn Trenholme Counsell says literacy skills gap is 'eroding' economy

An Early Literacy Friends volunteer reads with a Grade 2 student. ELF is in more than 100 elementary schools. (CBC)

Side by side with jobs and the economy, education — especially literacy and essential skills, such as computer technology and communication in all its forms — should be front and centre in this provincial election.

The Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick has sent a position paper to the leader of each political party stating, “We share your belief that students achieving their full potential and a knowledgeable, skilled workforce are key to the economic and social well-being of our province and our citizens.”

This position paper addresses four pillars — adult literacy and essential skills, family and community literacy, literacy in New Brunswick schools and accountability through regular data collection.

Despite the efforts of so many, New Brunswick still has the lowest literacy rates of all provinces with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In short, we are challenging our political leaders to make a strong commitment towards achieving this 90 per cent goal of literacy in every New Brunswick school within the next four years.- Marilyn Trenholme Counsell

Over 50 per cent of New Brunswick’s citizens, 15-65 years, do not have the necessary literacy levels (level 3) or the workplace essential skills to compete in the workplace. This serious “skills gap” is eroding our economy. 

The Literacy Coalition is calling for an enhanced, well co-ordinated plan for adult literacy and essential skills training, one which brings together the excellent work being done by many LCNB partners, especially the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour, Laubach Literacy New Brunswick and local initiatives, such as the Saint John Learning Exchange.

Such a plan would require the full co-operation of government, educational institutions, adult learning programs, the corporate sector and labour.

Annual targets should be set based on clearly defined rationale for increasing the number of adults with level 3 literacy.

Adult literacy initiatives are a treatment for a very serious problem undermining the health and well-being of our province and its citizens. These initiatives are important but the only long-term answer is prevention that begins in the home and continues in schools through to graduation.

Home is the 'cradle of learning'

The family home is “the cradle of learning.” An emphasis on literacy in the home and community is essential.

Community action is needed to support families to accept their responsibility from the earliest days of a child’s life and throughout the years with lifelong learning.

Marilyn Trenholme Counsell writes that literacy in the home and community is essential. (National Reading Campaign)
There are already many excellent examples across the province such as PALS in Saint John and the learning programs supported by the Caisses populaires acadiennes through francophone communities. PALS began as a small anti-poverty initiative, which includes more than 100 businesses now.

Schools targeted by PALS have seen their literacy scores increase by 24 per cent over five years compared to the school district’s average of six percent.

J.K. Irving said on Aug. 23 that, “We hope that our government leaders continue to support our initiatives and make literacy a priority, not just before the election, but once in power – from a government, business and community point of view it is a darn good investment.”

The McCain Foundation has provided support to LCNB for a new booklet “Let’s Learn Together” designed for parents of children from one to five years old. It will be distributed through the Public Health clinics. We hope this will provide important follow-up to the, “Born to Read” books given to parents at the birth of their child.

In November, LCNB will hold a bilingual provincial conference in Moncton, titled “Family Literacy — How to Ignite It, How to Instill It, and Why Does it Matter?”

Margaret Norrie McCain will be the keynote speaker and a distinguished panel will lead the discussions.

If all of this creates a momentum, that’s good but we need to reach thousands of families in hundreds of communities.

Schools are the one place where this happens.

Frank Hayes, the literacy coalition’s president, is challenging the province’s provincial leaders to look at countries like Singapore and Finland which have the highest international literacy scores (and productivity), according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Emphasis on reading, writing needed

LCNB is calling for sustained emphasis on reading and creative writing in public schools, stating that the excellent work taking place in elementary schools must be continued throughout the middle years and high school with rigour and passion.

It is clear that New Brunswick schools will have to work hard to ensure that their students can achieve national standardized test scores at levels comparable to, or exceeding, other Canadian provinces and territories.

But there is good news: in 2013 in the province's English schools, 78.1 per cent of Grade 9 students met or exceeded reading expectations while 82.4 per cent succeeded in writing assessments while Grade 2 results showed 79.5 per cent success in reading. This is still short of the government’s goal of 90 per cent success at the end of Grade 2.

Early Literacy Friends (ELF) is already in more than 100 elementary schools providing individual literacy mentors for students still struggling with “learning to read” in Grade 2.

ELF’s program is based on the work of Douglas Willms, the director of the Canadian Research Institute for Social Policy. Willms claims that any child who is not “reading to learn” by Grades 3 to 4, will struggle in school and at work for a lifetime.

In short, we are challenging our political leaders to make a strong commitment towards achieving this 90 per cent goal of literacy in every New Brunswick school within the next four years.

Political leaders must unleash the joy, the power and the comfort of reading so that every New Brunswick citizen might reach her/his potential.

The literacy coalition believes that full accountability — annual evaluation and reporting — must be undertaken to ensure measurable progress. 


Marilyn Trenholme Counsell is the past president of the New Brunswick Literacy Coalition. She served in the Senate from 2003 to 2008 and was New Brunswick's lieutenant governor from 1997 to 2003. She also served as the MLA for Tantramar from 1987 to 1997.