Thirty-seven-year-old businessman Brian Armstrong has a secret he’s willing to share. Until age 23, one of the few things he could read was a menu, and even that wasn’t always correct. If it hadn’t been for an insightful and determined “former biker” friend, he’d still be that way.

Hardly anyone knew, because Armstrong became an expert at cover-up -- timing bathroom breaks in meetings so that when a written report came around to him he wasn’t there to read it, and having two sympathetic staff who, unasked, concealed the truth from others.

After Armstrong’s struggle was discovered, he was given a strict regimen by his friend -- reading five pages a day, highlighting what he didn’t understand, and journaling on everything from getting up, to shaving, to brushing his teeth. “But he never belittled me, or made me feel stupid,” Armstrong recalls.


Armstrong’s literacy problems began in elementary school, thanks to an abusive home life, illness, and a school system that pushed him to the next level. By Grade 8, he was so far behind, he quit school.

It’s not an unusual story – considering that 42 per cent of Canadians have low enough literacy skills that they can’t fill out a medical form, and of those, 15 per cent function at the lowest level.

But the veil of secrecy has most believing they’re alone with this problem and unable to screw up the courage it takes to ask for help, says Adrienne Laughington, coordinator at Edmonton’s Centre for Family Literacy. So it’s left to family members and friends – like Armstrong’s biker friend – to figure out there’s a problem and then suggest ways to correct it.

Although the Literacy Centre occasionally advertises on radio, buddies with other community programs, and puts up easy-to-read posters, Laughington says “the best advertising is through word of mouth. We have a learner right now who is recruiting his friend to join our program.”

Employers, though, would be well advised to identify staff with literacy problems -- Armstrong can tell concealment tricks right away. Statistically speaking, it’s in their best interest. According to 2005 Statistics Canada numbers, employers who make use of literacy programs see a 251 per cent return on improved productivity.

While Armstrong’s transformation was “painful” he says it was worth it: “Developing a habit of highlighting words which I don’t quite grasp, has given me a deeper understanding of how to use words and my dream is to one day write a book.”

Teaching adult literacy: It’s a feel-good challenge

Ashima Sumaru became a teacher of adult literacy because she “loves challenging work,” and the way her students challenge the way she things about things.”

A coordinator for Edmonton’s Centre for Family Literacy, Sumaru has a degree in English, and a degree in Education, but adult literacy teachers are only required to have a teaching certificate plus some experience teaching adults. However, most agencies that provide programs rely heavily on volunteer tutors to provide one on one instruction.

Programs, provincially funded, are delivered by school boards, colleges, and community-based organizations. If someone you know is struggling with literacy, check or, both of which list literacy programs in Canada. You can also check with your local library.

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