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Johnny and Janey can?t read

A ?good percentage? of students entering college and university these days have extremely poor reading and writing skills, says the head of Laurentian University?s writing assistance program.
A ?good percentage? of students entering college and university these days have extremely poor reading and writing skills, says the head of Laurentian University?s writing assistance program.
Leda Culliford, also an English instructor at Laurentian, spends her days teaching students how to write essays and lab reports.
Some students simply ?can?t string a sentence together? and are at risk of failure, she says.
It?s much the same across Canada. In an article published by The Globe and Mail last week, professors at several Canadian post-secondary institutions complained about their students? poor literacy skills.

It?s not because they all have learning disabilities or are studying English as a second language, says Culliford. She thinks students simply lack the necessary training.

High schools should be doing a better job of preparing students for post-secondary studies, says the instructor.

But she?s hesitant to put all the blame on teachers.

There are many excellent high school educators out there, says Culliford, but they are forced to follow a set curriculum written by someone with no classroom experience.

This isn?t the best way to get students excited about literacy, she says.

Youth also tend to spend more time playing video games than reading books, says Culliford.

?Young people tend to live a largely visual life. They tend to look at pictures and screens much more than they encounter the printed word,? she said. ?As a result, they?re not comfortable with the printed word. They don?t view it as a source of pleasure.?

The problem is so bad Laurentian offers several remedial programs for students at risk of falling behind.

The university introductory program, which was founded by Culliford, allows students with high school averages under 70 percent to take a special university skills class and work under a reduced course load.

LU?s mentoring program identifies students with a history of failure and requires them to meet with a counsellor once a week. The general student population can access writing help from peer tutors at the writing assistance programme.

?In theory, it?s not the university?s job to teach them basic reading and writing skills, but what are we supposed to do? I have to do something. I?m being paid to teach that student,? says Culliford.

But the director of education at the Rainbow District School board insists Ontario high schools are doing their best to keep students? literacy skills up to par.

Before graduation, every student is expected to pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, says Jean Hanson. If they fail, they must take an equivalent literacy course. Last year, Rainbow District School Board students boasted an 81 percent pass rate. ?If you were to look at that test, you would be assured that the standard for our students is high,? she says.

Hanson is glad colleges and universities are taking action to help struggling students, but believes high schools are doing their job.

Literacy is emphasized in every aspect of the curriculum from kindergarten to Grade 12 in the Rainbow board, she says. Students who fall through the cracks are given individualized attention.

Even so, it makes sense that students are struggling, because poor literacy skills are shockingly common among all Canadians, says Anette Chawla, executive director of the Ontario Literacy Coaltion.

According to a recent Statistics Canada poll, four out of every 10 Canadians have trouble with reading and writing. ?It?s likely that some of those students caught up by those statistics would end up in college and university,? says Chawla.

?I think there?s a lot more awareness about literacy and a willingness to act in the school system right now,? she said. ?But has there been enough done? No, I wouldn?t say so. But at least we seem to be going in a better direction.?