Building Inclusive Communities Through Literacy

“Literacy is foundational. It’s what we need to make life easier.” These were the first words from Maureen Kehler, Program Manager at Decoda Literacy Solutions, when we sat down to talk about why literacy is important to the health of our communities.

More than 700,000 British Columbians have significant challenges with literacy, which may manifest as difficulty understanding newspapers, following instruction manuals, reading health information, or other tasks related to daily living.

For children, age eight is the approximate time when they switch from learning to read to reading to learn. When they fall behind, graduation rates decline. Yet developmental milestones vary child to child, and there are other factors to consider – like the pandemic.

“We’re all going through [COVID-19] but we’re not all going through it the same way,” says Maureen. “Inequities abound: not everybody has a device; not everybody has parents who know how to use a device; not everybody has internet at home; some parents are able to stay home; some people have a social group that can help; for some kids, school is their safe place, and it’s been disrupted.” The effects of these inequities on literacy are yet to be realized.

“There is a stigma on people who don’t know how to read,” says Maureen. Yet people may have low literacy for many reasons, including the effects of trauma, learning disabilities, inequities in education, or frequent moves. “But someone’s reading level is not a measure of their intelligence or their worth,” says Maureen.

Building awareness for this issue is paramount to reducing stigma around coming forward as an adult or recognizing when a child needs additional support to increase their literacy to get the most out of life. That’s why Decoda Literacy Solutions, along with the more than 100 Literacy Outreach Coordinators (LOC) it supports across the province, approach literacy from a community-based lens.

Place-Based Learning

“Literacy is place-based,” explains Maureen. “When communities raise their literacy levels, it impacts the whole community.” In communities across the province, literacy task groups– made up of members from across sectors and industries such as education, business, and trades – identify where the gaps are and work together to find ways to address them.

As literacy levels increase, people are more likely to participate in politics, advocate for more inclusive communities, and volunteer. But how do we improve literacy at an individual level?

Embedded Learning

At Family Services of Greater Vancouver (FSGV), we see first-hand how embedded learning can encourage people to increase their literacy while engaged in another activity. Participants in our Community Kitchen programs may also practice their language skills, learn about nutrition, or increase their knowledge on budgeting. These environments also create a safe space in which people can come forward to express when they struggle with something, like reading food labels or medical dosage information.

Maureen recalls an example of embedded learning from her days as an adult literacy practitioner and employment counsellor. During a pilot project for people living on income assistance, a participant came forward who wasn’t comfortable in a group setting. They struggled with anger management and couldn’t read forms very well. Maureen arranged for one-on-one tutoring to help the participant set and work toward their goals – among which was a goal to be able to read to their step-kids.

While the program was intended to help people on income assistance find employment, embedded within it was a chance for this participant to increase their literacy. Months later, Maureen saw the client with a big smile on their face, employed and more involved in their step-kids’ lives.

With embedded learning, welcoming and accepting group or individual environments create a sense of belonging. “Learner-focused and community-driven,” is how Maureen describes it, adding “we need to ensure we include our whole community and that everyone has access to skills development, whatever that looks like.”

Increased confidence

“Finding out what motivates a learner… or that learner finding out what motivates them is important,” says Maureen. It increases confidence to achieve something – whether it’s related to literacy or not.

The motivation for one of Maureen’s former clients was job related. In order to get a job as a bus driver, they needed to pass a test. In order to pass the test, they needed to be able to comprehend the manual. Upon passing a test, that client, or any learner, now believes that they can achieve what they set their mind to, and feel less shame or stigma about asking for help.

A Role to Play

As community members we have a role to play in reducing stigma, by supporting people and programs that increase literacy. Local governments have a role to play as well, by recognizing how integral literacy is to community health and prosperity.


Decoda Literacy Solution funds a Literacy Outreach Coordinator at FSGV to develop literacy programs for children, youth, adults, seniors, and families in the City of New Westminster. You can learn more about Decoda and their network of LOCs at decoda.ca.

Looking for a literacy or community program in New Westminster? Learn more about FSGV programs, such as: