Wednesday, July 17, 2024

‘Literacy means making sense of your world’

Outgoing Western Quebec Literacy Council president shares insights from the job

Camilla Faragalli
Campbell’s Bay Nov. 20, 2023
The Western Quebec Literacy Council (WQLC) has been supporting individuals looking to improve upon their literacy in the Pontiac and larger Outaouais region for decades.
While the organization aims to support the development of all forms of literacy, the COVID-19 pandemic, which moved much of the world online, highlighted an urgent need for digital literacy in the region.
Outgoing president Donna Cushman knows this well. She’s held the position for four years, since just before the start of the pandemic.
Cushman said the WQCL is doing a lot of work to promote digital literacy, especially with seniors, emphasizing that for many people, digital literacy is “a whole new world” to learn to navigate.
“There are a lot of people that could get along with oral communication [in the past],” she said, pointing out that it was easier for people with a lower level of literacy to find employment, prior to the explosion of internet popularity over the past couple of decades.
Cushman said that now, however, many people “just don’t have all the skills that they need,” which in some cases, she said, can lead to embarrassment.
“Sometimes they’ve had really negative learning experiences growing up, and so they’re reluctant to ask for support, because learning has not been a positive experience,” she said.
“It’s a lot of relationship building, at first, you know, gaining trust . . . Because if you don’t have that, you’re not going to get very far with the learning.”
In her time with the organization, Cushman saw the extent to which literacy and confidence, especially in adults, can go hand in hand.
“To me, in the broadest sense, literacy means making sense of your world, and everybody needs to be able to make sense of the world around them,” Cushman said.
Cushman is continuing with the organization as a tutor and a reading buddy. Replacing her as president of the WQLC is Nikki Beuchler.
‘Learners set their own goals’
Founded in 1984, the WQLC works to promote English literacy across the Outaouais by connecting both adult and child learners with local tutors, free of charge.
Individual weekly lessons consist of reading, writing, numeracy, digital skills and communication with one of about 30 trained volunteers.
Lessons are tailored to developing the skills the learner personally identifies as areas needing improvement. No grades or levels are given.
“Our learners set their own goals,” said Greg Graham, executive director of the WQLC.
“There are all sorts of people at varying levels of literacy,” he said, explaining that while for some people literacy goals can be specific, such as achieving a level necessary for enrolment in a post-secondary or adult education program, in other cases, people simply desire to improve their quality of life.
“People are unable to enjoy life or participate in the way they want, because they’re just not able to read and write at the level they need,” he said.
Graham cited the story of an elderly woman who wanted to improve her literacy and digital literacy skills in order to book a flight online to visit family.
“[It is] something that so many of us take for granted, but for this person it was a struggle,” said Graham, adding that the woman was eventually able to develop the skills necessary to book her flight independently.
According to Graham, a number of factors exist that can contribute to a person’s ability to develop and maintain a functional level of literacy.
“They maybe didn’t have all the opportunities to go to school that you or I had,” he said. “Or because of their family situation, they’re living in a bi-cultural, bi-linguistic family, where the language they speak at home and the language they study at school are two different things.”
Graham said the WQLC does not exist to replace traditional education but rather to provide easy-to-access literacy support to people, many of whom are older and less inclined to go back to school.
“They [learners] are not lost,” Graham said, “they just don’t fit the nice handy categories that traditional education provides.”
He maintained that one-on-one tutoring or small workshops can often better suit adult learners’ needs.
A publicly available report from the WQLC shows that in 2021, the organization helped 317 participants in workshops over the course of the year. The report noted the COVID-19 pandemic significantly restricted the literacy program from reaching as many people as it could have.
The bigger picture
An often-cited survey from the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies conducted in 2013 found that 19 per cent of people in Quebec were likely to find themselves in a situation where they would experience great, or very great difficulty in reading and writing.
For context, that means about one in five people in the province would have great, or very great difficulty reading this article.
Guy Chiasson, a professor of political science at the Universite du Québec en Outaouais, said literacy is “very important” for regional development.
“In the current economy, it’s very hard to find positions where you don’t have some level of literacy,” Chaisson said, adding that literacy is important for citizenship, participation in society, and being part of a dynamic community.
“It shouldn’t be seen only in terms of how to get people to be able to work, but also how to get people to be included in society and to be fully functional in all aspects of life,” he said.
According to the WQLC, higher literacy can improve job prospects, earning potential, self confidence and pride, which in turn helps in areas such as personal development, and community regeneration.
“The more literate everyone is, the better we can hold governments to account, the better we can participate in society,” Graham said.
“Regionally, we have that English-French divide,” he added. “And we [in Western Quebec] have got, in some cases, a lower level of education, as well as an older population that might not have much exposure to technology.”
Graham said that one of the biggest challenges for the WQLC has always been the sheer size of Western Quebec.
“We’re bigger than Belgium,” he said. “We cover a vast territory… we want to be able to be more effective geographically. As a region, we will do a lot better if we have those skills.”
The WQLC office is located in Campbell’s Bay. Interested learners and tutors alike are encouraged to reach out.


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