Pictured above: A group of Parkdale Project Read students saying “thank you”.
The relationships between literacy levels, poverty and access to justice are well established (try a quick web search). Knowing this, it’s hardly surprising that a typical learner at Parkdale Project Read – an adult literacy project located in downtown Toronto – struggles with poverty and faces many social and systemic barriers, including the justice system.
Intersecting and cumulative hurdles
“Our adult literacy learners are usually older than 16 and have low basic literacy levels,” says literacy coordinator and George Brown College professor Nadine Sookermany. “The challenges they encounter are intersecting and cumulative.”
“It’s not unusual for our students to say they have been stuck in a low-paying jobs, burdened with labels and medical diagnoses, or reported as unfit parents,” adds Jo Alcampo, another literacy coordinator.
According to Sookermany, the legal difficulties alone are enormous. “Being given legal documents to sign without the resources or supports to evaluate them first is a common experience,” she says. “Some documents can have life-changing impacts; like people with mental health issues being hospitalized without their informed consent, loving mothers unknowingly signing their children into care, or tenants who don’t know their rights being taken advantage of by landlords.”
Navigating the health system is another huge barrier. Sookermany elaborates: “Someone may see their doctor and want another opinion or referral. But they might not understand what the doctor said or be able to read information given to them. Sometimes our tutors will accompany someone to a medical appointment to provide support.”
Alcampo summarizes, “Adults with literacy challenges are broadly misunderstood, and run up against all kinds of systems that are not accessible for people with literacy challenges.”
Creating space to learn
At Parkdale Project Read, literacy is about the whole learner—not just reading and writing. Says Alcampo, “Literacy is also about how you feel confident in your self-esteem and being able to name and articulate your emotions, so you can assert your rights and what you need.”
Over 35 years ago, Parkdale Project Read began as a collection of volunteers in the basement of the Parkdale Public Library. The project was launched by Dr. Rita Cox in response to requests from the local community for help with reading and writing.
Today it has its own storefront location at King and Dufferin. Learners can sit down with a volunteer tutor for one-to-one support or in a group, access online toolkits such as Helping Myself Learn, participate in a vibrant literacy café, or publish their life stories on its Learners’ Gallery.
“We try to create an informal atmosphere,” says Alcampo. “While we do teaching and learning here, we also want people to feel like they can come in and have a cup of tea. A lot of people say what makes Parkdale Project Read so effective is learning here in this space and as a part of this community. Many people call this their second home.”
Community legal workers from nearby Parkdale Community Legal Services sometimes come in and provide public legal education sessions. “It makes a big difference for our students to access legal information in a familiar and comfortable space that doesn’t feel like an institution,” says Alcampo.
Writing their own stories
Sookermany describes the adult literacy learners she knows as resilient and tenacious.
“Adult literacy learners have very developed critical-thinking skills. They have an exceptional ability to navigate every system you can imagine. They’ve had to create strategies throughout their entire lives to get by.”
She continues, “Our learners are voters, they’re on boards of directors, and they’re active citizens. They’re incredibly resourceful and they just find ways to participate.”
When students make gains in their literacy comprehension levels, the possibilities are endless. Some learners find their satisfaction in feeling more equipped for day-to-day tasks, like attending a PTA meeting and being an active participant, reading the full text of something with their name in it, or feeling more confident interacting with other adults. Others go on to publish their life stories. And still others graduate to an academic upgrading program with George Brown College.
“Having a community feeling like we do here at Parkdale Project Read is also a kind of literacy. When people feel safe and secure, they can learn better. Not having that makes it difficult for anyone to concentrate.”
How can you support adult literacy?
- Parkdale Project Read recruits volunteer tutors year-round. Applications and information are available on their website. See also the resource site Learning and Violence.
- There are a number of literacy organizations and resources in Ontario.
- Ask your local library for ways you can get involved. Libraries frequently run or have connections to literacy programs.
In your work
- If you’re creating materials for print or web, or communicate with the general public in your work, familiarize yourself with the Flesch-Kincaid test and tool to check readability level of your writing. https://readability-score.com/
- Check out the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Standards to learn more about what you can do to encourage the accessibility of information online.