how do you spell h-e-a-l-t-h?

My stepson, Nicholas, is an amazing kid. He loves sports and plays hockey, baseball, soccer, frisbee, basketball, swimming, trampoline, and pretty much anything that moves his body. He believes in fair play and is ever the referee during pick-up games. Nicholas is happiest being outside and while learning new hands-on skills. He is a fast-learner with so much potential, yet he struggles in school. He has trouble reading and understanding what he reads.

I’m sure there is someone in your life that you know has trouble reading and writing. In fact, 48% of Canadians have low literacy skills. This means that they have trouble completing reading tasks every single day.

Literacy advances communities, creates harmony, reduces poverty, encourages democracy, and unites ideas.

According to the Education For All Global Monitoring Report, literacy has shown to:

  • increase self-esteem and sense of empowerment
  • increase political participation
  • lead to democratic development and this, in turn, leads to further literacy
  • facilitate cultural understanding and change
  • impact peace and reconciliation in post-conflict areas
  • preserve cultural diversity
  • improve health, education, gender equality
  • contribute to economic growth and development

Historically, literacy was a privilege granted to higher social classes. In the mid-fifteenth century, the Gutenberg press revolutionized the way written material was prepared and shared. Before the invention of the press, the only available works of literature were handwritten religious texts in Latin. The press made it possible to translate texts into many languages and made the information available to the average person, encouraging literacy at all social levels.

Despite the success of the printing press to disseminate information to the masses, in the mid-nineteenth century, only 10% of the world’s adult population was literate (Literacy for Life report, page 189).

Why is that? If information was available to everyone, written in a language they could understand, why were so many still illiterate?

access and barriers to literacy

According to the Education For All Global Monitoring Report, literacy has improved mostly due to “formal schooling, adult learning opportunities and (in some countries) organized literacy campaigns.” Programs such as Alfred Fitzpatrick’s Frontier College, Cora Wilson Stewart’s Moonlight Schools, and the Bristol Adult School were the very beginnings of organized literacy programs in Europe and North America. These initiatives were started and driven by dedicated volunteers who wanted to approach learners with compassion and understanding. (Beyond the Book)

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the government of Canada began to really get involved. A study in 1987 called Broken Words highlighted the low levels of literacy in Canada and led to the development of many programs that we have today. (Beyond the Book, page 13)

However, there are many places in the world that have not advanced significantly in levels of literacy due to many factors, such as “political strife, warfare and economic decline.”

unequal access

There remains an unequal access to literacy throughout the world. It closely resembles the inequalities that are being addressed in the health care industry.

Health equity means that all people can reach their full health potential and should not be disadvantaged from attaining it because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, social class, socioeconomic status or other socially determined circumstance. ~National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health, 2013

Access to health care and healthy lifestyles is not the same for everyone. People are stopped from becoming their healthiest selves because of things that are out of their control. Things like how much money they make, their level of education, where they live, gender, and race affect whether they have access to health care and healthy messages. If you cannot read the label on a prescription bottle, it can lead to serious injury or even death.

Inequities we see in health care can also be seen in literacy levels. In some countries, reading is only taught to men and boys. In war-torn or less-developed countries, literacy is not a priority. These barriers are beyond the control of a person who wants to learn to read and write.

Health literacy is a growing concern when “60% of adult Canadians lack the capacity to obtain, understand and act upon health information and services and to make appropriate health decisions on their own.” (Canadian Council on Learning Health Literacy in Canada. 2007)

literacy in Canada

In 1991, more than 1 in 3 Canadians had trouble with everyday reading tasks. Since then, things seem to have become worse. According to the Conference Board of Canada, our country gets a “C” grade for literacy levels as of 2012. This report shows that 48%, nearly one-half of Canadians, have “inadequate literacy skills”. This rate is expected to go up by 25% by the year 2031.

How is that possible in a developed country like Canada? Like you, I expected to see improved levels of literacy, not these abysmal numbers and predictions.

It boils down again to inequities. How much money you make, where you live, your parent’s level of education, whether you are employed, your age, race, and many other factors affect your ability to improve your literacy.


adult learning initiatives

Throughout history, the most impactful programs to improving literacy levels were the adult schools. Today, the stigma of illiteracy means more adults are just getting by and hiding the fact that they need help. Low literacy is not a measure of intelligence, it is a measure of the barriers faced when learning to read and write that were out of your control.

There are some great programs that can help:

using plain language

If someone can read and write but cannot understand the material, then access to the information is irrelevant. This is why we need plain language even more today. We need to create clear, intelligent messages that people can understand quickly and get access to the information they need easily.

In 1991, the Government of Canada created a guide called Plain Language: Clear and Simple. It was written for public servants to use as a resource when writing materials for all Canadians. Despite its age, this manual is an excellent tool for creating simple, easy-to-understand messages and communications.


With the internet as a destination for everything, reading is your ticket to get there. However, if one-third of the population can’t understand the information available, their tickets are void. But a program called Heuristext is trying to remove those barriers and is making the internet a plain language-friendly place for everyone.

By using and embracing plain language, we can level the playing field for everyone. Everyone has a right to access and understand information that may affect their lives.


When I started writing this article, I wanted to focus on plain language and its principles in writing for clarity. It quickly changed when I discovered that Canada is not as literate as I thought. As someone who reads and writes not only for a living but for the pleasure of it, I was shocked to learn that nearly half of the country cannot experience the joy of words. Plain language is only a brick in the structure that needs to be built around improving literacy numbers.

Health inequities can be called literacy inequities. The results of the barriers are equally as dangerous to health as they are to literacy. If someone can access health care but cannot understand it, then access is irrelevant. If they can understand, but cannot get a family doctor, then understanding is irrelevant. Literacy and health are infinitely linked.


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