Literacy is the ladder out of poverty for all ages

By KAREN BLAIR Wed, Dec 8 - 4:55 AM

Marilla Stephenson’s Dec. 1 column caught my eye with its headline "Education is the fast road to get kids out of poverty." She described the common ground, albeit different approaches, put forth by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies on the impact of child poverty.

I agree reduced dependence on generational welfare starts with supported education for adults and young children.

However, I caution that focusing a disproportionate amount of that educational support on young children with early childhood programs while leaving their parents out of the picture will not give you the best bang for your taxpayer dollars.

The simple fact is children do not exist in isolation from their families. The often tossed-about term "child poverty" really means "family poverty."

Children live in poverty because they are part of families who live in poverty, and a child whose parent(s) did not graduate from high school is twice as likely to live in poverty as a child whose parent(s) did graduate.

So how do we address the "child poverty" issue with education?

Early childhood programs are certainly part of the picture, but parents play a vital role as their children’s first teachers. The higher the level of a parent’s education, the higher the likelihood the child will succeed in school.

Here’s another basic fact about children and families: Children will still have problems in school if their parents lack the literacy skills to support their learning.

Literacy organizations around this province find that a prime motivator for many adults to return to school is so they can give more help to their children with their homework.

A major indicator of children’s success in schools is parental involvement in their children’s education.

Children’s achievement in school rises when their parents create a home environment that encourages learning, have high expectations for their children’s achievement and future careers, and become involved in their children’s education at school and in the community.

All of these are extremely difficult for parents with lower literacy levels, who often experience failure with their own education and feel intimidated by schools. Teachers will tell you that they rarely see the parents of children who are struggling in school.

A recent 20-year study concludes that around the world, the number of books in a family home is as important as the parent’s education in determining their children’s education level. Parents with lower literacy levels tend to have fewer books in their homes than those with higher literacy. There are many homes around this province where the only reading material are the weekly flyers and a Sears catalogue.

It really makes a whole lot of sense to raise parents’ education levels if you want to improve the educational success of children. All over the world, people know that if you teach the mother or father, you are teaching their children too.

Literacy for adults, children and families should be woven tightly into the fabric of the policies and practices that nurture and strengthen our communities. Literacy for all ages is the ladder out of poverty.

Karen Blair is executive director, Adult Learning Association of Cape Breton County.