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Little literacy program has big impact

Retired lawyer defends literacy

2010 Legacies Now
Shannon Rupp

While it might be bad for the business of the criminal defence lawyers he left behind, Andy Berna has been devoting some of his retirement to teaching Kamloops kids to read. 

When Berna, 79, agreed to tutor in Kamloop’s One to One Children’s Literacy Program, he was just being a responsible citizen answering a public appeal for help. As a retired lawyer he knew the connection between being illiterate and tangling with the law – the average prisoner reads at about a Grade 7 level. And his own love of books made teaching others to read a natural choice. 
But he didn’t expect to enjoy teaching so much. Eight months later he looks forward to his weekly visits with Grade 1 and 2 students, and gets a kick out of watching their progress. 
“I had one young guy, 7, who loves to play hockey, he’s a goalie, so when I could get a book on hockey he would do anything to read that book. He would just light up,” says Berna, who spends about three hours a week tutoring three children. 
Berna says that the One to One program, supported by 2010 Legacies Now, is remarkably effective:  he’s surprised at how quickly his students’ skills have improved with just three or four tutoring sessions a week, from different tutors. 
He finds the students bright, enthusiastic, eager to learn and willing to work. He suspects they have fallen behind because they lack support at home. 
“They want to be able to read, but I don’t think they’re getting any help. They don’t seem to pick up a book outside of school,” says the grandfather of seven. “So they just need some attention.” 
Fiona Clare, literacy outreach coordinator, says the goal of the 11-year-old program is to catch slow readers early before learning problems become entrenched. Every year she deploys about 250 volunteer tutors to serve about 500 elementary school students in more than two dozen schools.   
The tutors also play games, listen, and make students feel comfortable learning. They make the sessions social and try to convey the idea that reading is fun. 
“A huge part of what these tutors do is build students' self confidence and improve their attitude towards reading,” Clare says.
Programs like these are crucial to B.C.’s economy because the consequences for children who don’t find the joy of reading are staggering. Literacy B.C. reports that about 40 per cent of Canadians lack the skills to participate in a knowledge-based economy and have reading skills well below that of a high school graduate. In the 16 to 25 age group, 12 per cent struggle to read the most basic materials. 
Non-readers suffer high unemployment. Less than half of those with the lowest literacy skills are employed (compared with 80 per cent employment rates among the highly literate.). There’s a difference of $30,000 annually between the household incomes of the two groups. Many functionally illiterate people face poverty.  About 43 per cent of those with the lowest literacy levels are on social assistance. 
Poor reading skills are the norm for prisoners, and even if they manage to avoid jail those with limited literacy can also anticipate more health problems. Only about 30 per cent of those at the low end of the reading scale report having good health, compared with 75 per cent of people with high literacy scores. 
But perhaps the most startling number is how much functional illiteracy costs the country as a whole. Just a slight increase of 1 per cent in the national literacy scores can boost a country’s productivity by 2.5 per cent – which in Canada is worth $32 billion per annum to the Canadian GDP. 
Having seen the social and economic impact of functional illiteracy first hand,  Berna plans to stay with the program. 
“It’s only a few hours a week, but [for the students] it really adds up,” he says. 

While it might be bad for the business of the criminal defence lawyers he left behind, Andy Berna has been devoting some of his retirement to teaching Kamloops kids to read. 

When Berna, 79, agreed to tutor in Kamloop’s One to One children’s literacy program, he was just being a responsible citizen answering a public appeal for help. As a retired lawyer he knew the connection between being illiterate and tangling with the law – the average prisoner reads at about a Grade 7 level. And his own love of books made teaching others to read a natural choice. 

 But he didn’t expect to enjoy teaching so much. Eight months later he looks forward to his weekly visits with Grade 1 and 2 students, and gets a kick out of watching their progress. 

“I had one young guy, 7, who loves to play hockey, he’s a goalie, so when I could get a book on hockey he would do anything to read that book. He would just light up,” says Berna, who spends about three hours a week tutoring three children. 

 Berna says that the One to One program, supported by 2010 Legacies Now, is remarkably effective:  he’s surprised at how quickly his students’ skills have improved with just three or four tutoring sessions a week, from different tutors. 

He finds the students bright, enthusiastic, eager to learn and willing to work. He suspects they have fallen behind because they lack support at home. 
“They want to be able to read, but I don’t think they’re getting any help. They don’t seem to pick up a book outside of school,” says the grandfather of seven. “So they just need some attention.” 

Fiona Clare, literacy outreach coordinator, says the goal of the 11-year-old program is to catch slow readers early before learning problems become entrenched. Every year she deploys about 250 volunteer tutors to serve about 500 elementary school students in more than two dozen schools.   

 The tutors also play games, listen, and make students feel comfortable learning. They make the sessions social and try to convey the idea that reading is fun. 
“A huge part of what these tutors do is build students' self confidence and improve their attitude towards reading,” Clare says.

Programs like these are crucial to B.C.’s economy because the consequences for children who don’t find the joy of reading are staggering. Literacy B.C. reports that about 40 per cent of Canadians lack the skills to participate in a knowledge-based economy and have reading skills well below that of a high school graduate. In the 16 to 25 age group, 12 per cent struggle to read the most basic materials. 

Non-readers suffer high unemployment. Less than half of those with the lowest literacy skills are employed (compared with 80 per cent employment rates among the highly literate.). There’s a difference of $30,000 annually between the household incomes of the two groups. Many functionally illiterate people face poverty.  About 43 per cent of those with the lowest literacy levels are on social assistance. 

Poor reading skills are the norm for prisoners, and even if they manage to avoid jail those with limited literacy can also anticipate more health problems. Only about 30 per cent of those at the low end of the reading scale report having good health, compared with 75 per cent of people with high literacy scores. 

But perhaps the most startling number is how much functional illiteracy costs the country as a whole. Just a slight increase of 1 per cent in the national literacy scores can boost a country’s productivity by 2.5 per cent – which in Canada is worth $32 billion per annum to the Canadian GDP. 

Having seen the social and economic impact of functional illiteracy first hand,  Berna plans to stay with the program. 
“It’s only a few hours a week, but [for the students] it really adds up,” he says. 

1 Dec 2009