The Importance of Early Childhood Literacy

Posted September 15, 2011

By Wayne Grady


“Learning to read begins at birth,” said Clara Bohrer, an advocate for early childhood literacy in the United States. “The parent is the child’s first and most valuable teacher, and parents need to be educated to be equipped for so vital a role in the child’s development.”


Dr. Bohrer was speaking in January at the second annual National Reading Campaign Summit, a Canadian initiative that was formed to establish a national reading strategy that will increase Canada’s literacy rate. Currently Canada, at 97 percent, ranks 20th on the U.N. list of world literacy rates, but that ranking is deceptive; it is also true that, according to Statistics Canada, 15 percent of Canadians can’t understand the labels on medicine bottles, 27 percent can’t interpret the warnings on hazardous waste material sheets, and 42 percent are “semiliterate,” which means they technically can read, but their comprehension levels are very low. The Canadian Council on Learning recently noted that 48 percent of Canadians have skills below the internationally accepted standard of literacy required to cope in modern society.


Educators are recognizing that raising the literacy level begins with very early childhood. At the moment, one child in four begins kindergarten in Canada without the skills needed to learn how to read; in the U.S., the figure is 35 percent.

Is having a higher literacy rate important? What tangible benefits derive from being a true nation of readers?

Statistics Canada reports that every 1-percent increase in the nation’s literacy rate translates into a 2.5 percent increase in our gross domestic product. In other words, every time 350,000 Canadians learn to read, our GDP goes up by $32 billion. That’s one incentive, but there are other, perhaps more important, considerations.


Currently, about one in three Canadians are not literate enough to understand the difference between opposing points of view in newspaper editorials. We are now in the midst of an election campaign. Living in a country in which 48 percent of the population have substandard literacy skills has serious implications for the future of participatory democracy.

Wayne Grady is a member of the National Reading Campaign’s steering committee. He lives north of Kingston. Originally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard.