Even top performers can hide illiteracy

Former NHL coach Jacques Demers represents many who avoid help for fear of stigma

When National Hockey League coach Jacques Demers revealed to his wife that he couldn’t read, the reaction he found was utter incredulity.

How did he manage to mask his illiteracy for 10 years in professional hockey, Debbie Demers wanted to know. The answer: he was good at faking it.

When reading a document in front of a group of people, he would resort to one of three excuses. Perhaps he was too busy, or he had forgotten his glasses, or being francophone he had difficulty reading in English.

Those excuses served him well, even back in Quebec, when he was coach for the Nordiques. “I did have to modify my excuses,” he told journalist Mario Leclerc in a recently released biography, Jacques Demers En Toutes Lettres. “So I told my associates, my boss Maurice Filion or the support staff that I had spent so much time in the United States since 1972 that I had lost my French.”

And whenever he had to compose a letter, he drew on the assistance of a public relations director, who would be told that Demers had forgotten his glasses or that he was too busy or that his English was deficient.

What’s telling about Demers’ experience, said Christine Featherstone, president and CEO of ABC Canada Literacy Foundation, was the length to which he went to hide his illiteracy.

“There is still such a stigma attached to people with low literacy that not everybody is prepared to come forward. Look at Jacques Demers. He only admitted to it after he finished his career in hockey and because it was going to be such a prominent part of the book. He didn’t even tell his children.”

Featherstone noted that Demers’ experience demonstrates how deft people with low literacy can be in masking their condition.

“People get assistance from family members or friends to fill out their job applications. And once they’re in the workplace, they use all of their intelligence and all of their skills to work around the fact that they have low literacy skills.”

They’ll get coaching from colleagues, said Featherstone. Or they learn by watching other people and not by reading the manual that was handed to them. The ones who manage to reach higher ranks, like Demers, can fake it by delegating the reading and writing tasks to subordinates.

“I met a gentleman who was a search consultant, who runs his own practice. He had an undiagnosed learning disability when he was a young person and never learned how to read and write well,” said Featherstone.

“This is a search consultant whose job was reading resumés and writing up summary reports for his clients about who the best qualified candidates might be for a position. I asked him, ‘How did you manage?’ and he said, ‘I work tremendously long hours. I work weekends and I haven’t taken a vacation in years.’ It just takes him a very, very long time to read the information he has to read and to write reports. He can do it, but it just takes him a very long time.”

Featherstone points to last month’s release of the country-wide scores of the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey. The survey measured 23,000 Canadians against five levels of competency in four areas: literacy, document literacy, numeracy and problem-solving.

Among people aged 16 to 65, 42 per cent scored below level 3 prose literacy, considered by the survey designers as the desired level of prose literacy in a knowledge society. (Featherstone describes it as the level of literacy one attains after post-secondary schooling.)

The fact that Canada’s score in prose literacy has remained unchanged from 1994, said Featherstone, is an indication that there has been no investment put into this area of skills development. (International scores ranking Canada against other participating countries were not available at press time.)

She pointed to a paper published in October by the C.D. Howe Institute and conducted by University of Ottawa economics professor Serge Coulombe and assistant professor Jean-François Tremblay. In the paper, entitled Public Investment in Skills: Are Canadian Governments Doing Enough?, the academics correlated country scores from the international literacy survey with growth rates in per capita gross domestic product (GDP) as well as labour productivity defined as GDP per worker.

Using the 1994 scores, as well as the demographic profile of the 1994 respondents, they created an artificial time series going back to 1960 (a method that’s somewhat flawed in that it can’t take into account what people had learned over time).

What they found was an improvement in literacy score of one per cent relative to other countries is correlated with a higher per capita GDP of 1.5 per cent in the long run.

The impact on national labour productivity is even greater: every one-per-cent increase in relative literacy score achieves a two-per-cent increase in labour productivity in the long run.

“There has been quite a lot of emphasis in the economic literature on the contribution of very highly educated individuals to the process of innovation, technological progress and ultimately economic growth. So we wanted to verify whether that was the case. Our results do not seem to support this view that growth is largely driven by very skilled individuals,” said Tremblay.

What’s more, where there were higher proportions of individuals at the lowest levels of literacy, the authors also found “a significant negative effect on growth,” said Tremblay. “The percentage of people with very low skills acts as a significant drag on economic growth.”

“So it’s not sufficient to just increase the rate of individuals who achieve graduate schools or PhDs or high levels of skills. You need to invest in the overall distribution of skills. We can’t quantify these things at this point, but it may be as important to increase high school graduation rates and accessibility to post-secondary education as increasing the number of people entering graduate schools.”

In a follow-up study, expected in January, the authors will conduct a similar study with recent 2003 figures.

Recognizing that illiteracy is an issue that employers are loathe to acknowledge — many HR people view the problem inside their workplace as a sign that their recruitment practices weren’t rigorous enough to screen illiterate people out, Featherstone said — ABC Canada Literacy Foundation has launched an initiative to profile employers that do address the problem.

Published in the foundation’s new magazine, Canadian CEO, these profiles are aimed at portraying practical ways employers can introduce literacy programs at these workplaces, said Featherstone.

“These people were quite able to make the business case that workplace literacy was one of the ways to increase the skill levels of their employees.”

Measuring literacy skills

About 23,000 Canadians took part in the 2003 International Literacy and Skills Survey, which measures competency in four areas: prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy and problem-solving. The survey ranked competency levels on a five-point scale, with level 1 being the lowest level.

How the levels are defined:

For the prose, document and numeracy scales, level 3 is considered the desired threshold for coping with the increasing skill demands of a knowledge society.

•Prose literacy is the knowledge and skills needed to understand and use information from texts including editorials, news stories, brochures and instruction manuals. A level 3 question asked respondents to read an article about cotton diapers and to list three reasons why the author prefers disposable diapers over cotton diapers. A level 4 question asked respondents to read a pamphlet about hiring interviews and then describe the difference between a panel and a group interview.

•Document literacy is the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various formats, including job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables and charts. One of the most difficult questions asked respondents to consult a document from a consumer magazine that rated clock radios and identify the average price for the basic clock radio that had the highest overall score.

•Numeracy is the knowledge and skills required to effectively manage the mathematical demands of diverse situations. The easiest question required respondents to look at a photograph of two cartons of soft drink bottles and determine the total number of bottles. One of the most difficult presented them with an advertisement claiming that it was possible for an investor to double an amount invested in seven years, based on a 10-per-cent fixed interest rate each year. They were asked if it is possible to double $1,000 invested at this rate after seven years, then support their answer with their calculations.

•Problem-solving is goal-directed thinking and action in situations for which no routine solutions exist. For example, respondents were given a scenario, such as an upcoming family reunion, and had to analyze the situation, select potential dates, organize events, book flights and so on.

The Canadian breakdown:

•Among adults aged 16 to 65, 42 per cent scored below level 3 in prose literacy. In numeracy, 55 per cent scored below level 3.

•Outside Quebec, the proportion of francophones scoring below level 3 in prose literacy in French (62 per cent) was higher than the proportion of anglophones scoring below level 3 in English prose (50 per cent). There were no significant differences between francophones and anglophones in Quebec.

•The prose literacy score among Aboriginal respondents was lower than that of the total Canadian population. In both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, about 60 per cent of the urban Aboriginal population scored below level 3 on the prose scale, compared with 45 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population of Manitoba, and 39 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population of Saskatchewan.

•About 60 per cent of immigrants were below level 3 in prose literacy. This compares to 37 per cent of the Canadian-born population. The proportion of immigrants whose mother tongue was neither English nor French who scored at level 1 on prose literacy (37 per cent) was about twice that of immigrants with a mother tongue of English or French. Whereas two per cent of university-educated Canadian-born respondents scored at the lowest level (level 1) of prose literacy proficiency, 14 per cent of immigrants who arrived more than 10 years ago and 18 per cent of recent immigrants scored at this level.

Source: Statistics Canada

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